As a convert

The more I talk with lifelong Mormons, I realize I see some things differently than those raised up in it all.  Maybe it would be more accurate to say I realize I am able to see some things differently.

Struggles

Many of the faith-related struggles Mormons encounter, I believe, have to do with their interactions with, interpretation of, and reaction to the Mormon community.  When something potentially unsettling comes along, the lifers have to square it with the version of their faith they received from the community while growing up.  What complicates the process is that the “version” delivered to the youth is too often presented as infallible, replete with unrealistic depictions of historical figures from Mormon history and/or overly literal readings of scripture.  It is exceedingly difficult to integrate new information into an unyielding preexisting worldview.  The result, it appears, is binary: regression or revulsion.  Lifers too tightly programmed with an uncritical rendering of their faith seem to feel they must either regress to a provincial mindset, damning the unbelievers while demanding orthodoxy, or revile the narrative received in their youth as a fairy tale, denoting it a laughable mass of incongruities, and abandon it.

As a convert, I lack any such conditioning; I am therefore cognitively and emotionally free (at least in theory, right?) to reshape my perception of the faith at will and with impunity.  Admittedly, I’m too often insensitive to the genuine anguish lifers feel in the process of deciding whether they’ve been actively or unintentionally lied to.  Confessedly, I’m also elated by it.  Questioning my childhood is part of what brought me toward Mormonism.  Seeing someone else question is exciting; what discovery awaits, what higher planes, what greater intimacy with the divine!

To tell someone to just ignore the dissonance in their faith life is brutish.  The chaos must be waded into.  The divine pattern, as demonstrated by mythical and religious narratives, ancient and modern, shows the upstart god or outcast hero battling with the great monster, the de-civilizer, Chaos itself, in order to subdue it (usually to death) and recast the fragments of the beast into a new world.  This is the creation of context, the conferral of identity, seeing things and people for what they really are.  This involves accepting that the keepers and conveyors of the now inadequate version of your faith story were not malicious.  Mormons, exceptions there being, are an incredibly utilitarian people, not given to critical inquiry of a poetic or theological nature.  The kind of lengthy, literary study that reveals the undulate nature of the human inclination and thereby reinforces the mind against upheaval when faced with the inevitable vacillations to which the human creature is prone is not valued by the Mormon community at large.  Simply put: too many Mormons don’t read widely enough so their perspectives are stunted, as are their capacities to entertain opposition.

As a convert, I am able to recognize and acknowledge, without justifying, that at all levels of Mormondom are untrained clergy.  There are, therefore, innumerable expectations I just don’t maintain.  Untrained in ancient languages, they are incapable of providing either a textually or contextually informed interpretation of scripture.  Such an interpretation could potentially go a long way with millennials, wary as they are of anything that even remotely resembles uninformed groupthink.  At times, one hears that all you need is the Spirit, ya know, like John Lennon said about love.  Then we read that Joseph Smith, who could produce scripture by supernatural means, felt the need to obtain language instruction in the traditional manner: with a teacher, a text, and a lexicon.  Is that not irony?  He even went so far as to imply the necessity of such traditional instruction in the eighth Article of Faith.  The clergy of Mormondom are untrained as well in methods of professional counseling.  This is no call for an overhaul; merely a calling to an awareness of the fact that folks unschooled in the intricacies and dynamics of human interaction and psychology are given stewardship over the innermost recesses of our minds and souls.  In light of this, there’s almost no way they were going to get it “right” when they delivered, over the years, the dimensions of your faith story to you.  It is also important to understand that oneself is among the untrained.  The implications of Joseph Smith’s teachings are vast, complex and still too unplumbed.  Unless the pursuit of languages, literatures, sociology or psychology is yours, cut the clergy – and yourself – some slack.

These times see a struggling generation of Mormons.  This is no sign of weakness.  It is no small thing to be a transition generation.  Mormonism has undergone changes before, cultural shifts, in light of the demands of a larger, occasionally hostile world.  The Church, at this moment, is attempting to maintain its identity yet evolve so as to survive.  Jerusalem has always been surrounded by larger, more powerful cultures.  The challenge its inhabitants frequently faced involved the maintenance of their identity.  Much of the religion in the Tanakh is articulated around this interest.  Perhaps their most transformative challenge was their deportation to Babylon in the early 6th century BC.  One consequence was the (much later; circa 4th-6th centuries AD) formation of two versions of the Talmud: the Babylonian and the Palestinian.  The Talmud was and is an authoritative collection of rabbinic teachings.  The Babylonian version has long since become the more authoritative of the two, largely due to its greater clarity and finer nuance.  Centuries of Judaism have thus been largely shaped by the minds of Rabbis centered in Babylon, away from the sacred city Jerusalem.  Greater clarity and nuance, I submit, are one potential outcome of a tradition surrounded by larger, unavoidably influential cultures.  Mormondom has also been removed from its sacred points of origin and has continually had to renegotiate itself, its conception of its self.  This process is alive again.  The relevance of this attempted Jewish-Mormon analogy to my original premise is as follows.

The ability of the lifer to step outside the provincial views of their childhood and adopt a more rounded perspective will dictate his or her capability to not only assimilate into Mormonism but also to assimilate Mormonism into its next manifestation.  At first the ancient Jews were forcibly driven to Babylon.  In time, Mesopotamia came to house important centers of Talmudic learning.  After a while, Jews were opting for Babylon;[1] they found in it a safe haven wherein they could articulate their beliefs in such a way as to shore up their people against persecution.  The lifer must not recoil at the notion of cultural dissociation, especially if it precipitates a transformation of the (and their) faith that inoculates the next few generations against the advance of a larger, increasingly hostile world.  The power of Mormonism will emerge from struggle, not mindless complacence.

[1] In Mormonspeak, Babylon is viewed only in its 6th century BC context, and connotes “bad place.”   As with much of Christendom, Mormonism loses interest in Jewish history with the advent of Christ.  Centuries after Babylon destroyed the Temple, it became a long-time residence of several communities of highly learned and influential Jewish sages.

2 thoughts on “As a convert

  1. We’ve always been a Church that has encouraged its membership to know of themselves the doctrine, direction, and revelation given to us. So there’s always this standing invitation to engage in the question, even self-impose the struggle, on accepting change and difficult evolutions sometimes with the Church or its Doctrine, whether it’s personal or further-reaching. Sometimes we immediately accept and are satisfied by our conclusions, sometimes it can become a real struggle. Imagine doing this as an original member of the church. You went to Sacrament meeting with 5 other people, saw your leader martyred, and told by the next guy you needed to move 1300 miles to a new home. I am so glad I’ve never been asked to engage my membership in a 17 – year phase like that!

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