I started thinking a lot about hope in 2008. This is not a political statement but my thinking was influenced, in part, by the political narratives of the time. (Of course, President Obama took the title of his book from a sermon by his pastor. Leave your preconceived notions behind and just listen, it really is good.) The timing of a national focus on hope corresponded with a period in my personal life where I was reevaluating all of my personal beliefs. I didn’t want to be a predictable and simple byproduct of my environment, culture and social context. Although nobody can ever be completely objective, I tried my best to be honest with myself and decided to find what was true for me personally.
I’ll spare you the details but my journey took me full circle. I acquired a profound gratitude for that which I already had and I came to better understand the personal faith that had taken root in my heart and soul. The tree metaphor is overused but appropriate when it comes to faith. Like a living thing, faith can die. It doesn’t come to an abrupt end – it withers first. I had induced this process but I committed to myself that I would not forget the seed, or the cause, that resulted in something growing before. In other words, I would intellectualize, explore, investigate and find evidence that contradicted my religion and my worldview but could not allow myself, in good conscience, to deny the very personal spiritual experiences that I had previously had. After all, these experiences were pieces of evidence, or data points, that deserved to be included in my personal quest for truth. It is true that these very personal experiences are non-transferrable and wouldn’t pass the peer review process, nevertheless they are mine and it would have been dishonest for me to deny or otherwise exclude them from consideration. After all, this was my journey.
It turns out that for me personally, a lot of my personal motivation to reassess my religion was derived from a desire to not be like ‘them’. This they that I had a visceral reaction against could not be identified beyond a conglomeration of characteristics that I despised and lumped into one group of fictional characters. They were often small- and closed-minded, pedestrian, anti-scientific, judgmental, absolutist, monochromatic and self-righteous. I knew that my personal experience revealed life and the world to be so much different than how I felt they were inducing me to see and experience it. I would fight tooth and nail, kicking and screaming the whole time so as to not stare at the shadows on the wall chained in the same way I thought they were. Until I had the thought: “Who is this they that I am fighting against?” Beyond a certain number of individuals who I knew to be well-meaning and good despite embodying singular characteristics that I loathed, I could not figure out why this ambiguous and unidentifiable they had so much power over me.
Looking back now, I believe I had constructed a straw man against which I could compare myself and justify my own self-righteousness. In my defense, however, emancipation is a core part of human development. As we grow older we seek to emancipate ourselves from our parents and define ourselves as individuals. We all do it in our own ways. I never had oppressive or domineering parents. The oppressive force in my life, I thought, was an institution and culture that didn’t create space for people who thought or saw the world like me. I was wrong. I still fight against what can feel like a cultural monolith full of people predisposed to group-think and confirmation bias (and what large group of people united in cause or purpose isn’t?) but have come to acknowledge and accept the reality that there are a great number of people wrestling with their faith in the same way that I have/am.
All the above does not suggest that there are not good reasons to abandon religion. There are, in my view, compelling justifications for almost every way of living. Having empathy requires this acknowledgement. Nobody wants to be wrong. Nobody hopes to be left out. Most everybody does the best they can with the experience they have.
As we all know, navigating life while embedded in a unique and very specific context within societies constructed by centuries of history using languages that have evolved over time having been framed by ever changing boundaries of fact and reality can be something of a challenge. Nobody is capable of decoupling from the reality that connects them to a certain time period, language, DNA and predisposition. We are all, each and every one of us, the byproducts of very specific and unique circumstances. Even children of the same parents grow up in marginally different contexts surrounded by a completely different set of peers and people. Sure there are common human experiences but we come at them from unique perspectives. We should celebrate these differences.We lose something when we try to cram everyone in to the same box. The one thing we have in common is our difference.
In my personal quest I confronted many of the same arguments, facts, histories, hypocrisies, counter-factuals and dichotomies that persuade others to abandon Mormonism. Without examining any issue in particular and without suggesting that I heard every story that is upsetting, suffice it to say I read enough to justify departure from religion. And I considered it – I had to. When I hear new things today, because the pursuit of understanding never stops, I pause and reflect on my membership. But all things need to be weighed in the balance and considered in context.
Ultimately, no scientific fact, argument or principle satisfied the desires of my soul for peace. No story about the behavior of a church leader past or present undermined the personal spiritual experiences I have had. No single policy or unfortunate political position has overshadowed the hope imbued by the vast majority of principles expressed by the church within me. And please do not suppose that I just need to think about these things more or that I haven’t yet enough. That somehow with the right line of Socratic questioning I might come to discover that my intimately personal spiritual experiences were fabrications of a feeble mind. To those who have abandoned the religion and expect that I will once I think about it more (implicitly suggesting that I haven’t thought about it enough since I have come to a different conclusion), I would suggest that swapping one fundamentalism for another doesn’t solve any of your problems. What, in reality, is the difference between being rigid in religiousness and rigid in atheism? How is proselytizing for converts to a faith community different from persuading people to abandon their faith community? Both approaches presuppose superiority. Both presume ultimate righteousness.
Maybe anger at feeling misled or misguided provokes a desire to fight back against that faith institution that has caused one harm. Maybe previous spiritual experiences and commitments through ritual have such a hold on conscience that the only recourse is to block them out by vigorously fighting back. Maybe the mistreatment and the abandonment of affection by those who don’t understand one’s decision to take another path require attempts at retribution. However one might feel, accusations of inferior intellect or insufficient sincerity are not justified.
Why, then, do I stay after a long personal wrestle with faith? For two reasons: 1) Hope and 2) Integrity.
Hope precedes faith. Hope is what rekindled my belief. Despite my lack of evidence, I maintain a hope that certain things are true. I hope that my soul lives on. I hope that my love and partnership with my wife will last beyond death. I hope that my family is forever. I hope that I can improve myself and my condition. I hope there is a purpose to existence. I hope there is a universal source of love and truth. I hope that there is mercy. I hope that there is peace. I hope that there is a connection between the heavens and the earth. I hope there is a God. It wasn’t until I had suspended belief in these things that my hope began to stir deep within myself. I allowed this hope a place in my heart and mind. My hope would lead to a desire to believe. My desire to believe in the things I hoped for became faith. Faith is a hope.
Can one be hopeful without having faith? Of course. You can be without religion and hope for an after life. You can even hope that God exists and have no religion or belief about God. Without religion or belief in God one can have hope in a brighter future and then cultivate a faith that leads to action to reach this desirable future state. Hope is not an end but a beginning.
This hope isn’t a crutch and neither is my faith. Neither my hope nor my faith solve any of my problems for me. I still have to live my life. No matter how well constructed the bubble of religion can appear, reality has a way of smacking people who avoid it too long in the face. Sometimes, both faith and hope can help one maintain perspective, but there are a lot of ways of doing this without religion or faith. Mentors, community members, history, science, art, music and a myriad of other things and people can help one focus on a horizon that is well in the distance. Simply, there are a lot of things that we humans rely on because, as social creatures, none of us can do it on our own.
The process of developing (or re-developing) my faith did not undermine or disable my capacity to think for myself or critically analyze information. I might go so far as to suggest that my faith had been appropriately compartmentalized. This does not mean that my personal faith does not influence my actions – but that I understand the role that faith plays in my life. Knowing the boundaries of my faith has allowed it to grow and be cultivated under the right circumstances. Hope in things unknowable is something I want to maintain, something that gives me peace, something that provides perspective and something that motivates me to constructive action. Abandoning my faith did not erase my desire to hope. Should I leave my faith, with what should it be replaced? I have found no viable alternative to or replacement for that which I already have.
The second reason I stay is fairly simple: I have made commitments that I intend to keep. There is nothing wrong with changing or evolving based on new evidence. I am not questioning anybody’s integrity who has made a different decision than I, although it might sound that way. I am speaking to the process through which my mind has gone. Simply, I know the commitments I have made and I haven’t found any good reason to abandon them. James Faust said:
Integrity is the value we set on ourselves. It is a fulfillment of the duty we owe ourselves. An honorable man or woman will personally commit to live up to certain self-imposed expectations. They need no outside check or control. They are honorable in their inner core.
Where does the soul play its part best? Is it in outward show? Or is it within, where no mortal eyes can penetrate and where we have an inner defense against the tragedies of life?
Integrity is the light that shines from a disciplined conscience. It is the strength of duty within us.
Let’s assume, dear reader, that one’s faith is weak to the point of being undetectable. Does one have any obligation to one’s self to keep the commitments made in one’s heart? Of what value is any future promise made by an individual if they cannot keep those which they have already made? What sort of integrity does one maintain if profound commitments can be cast aside as though they meant nothing? Without God as part of the equation, the abandonment of commitment speaks to the character of the individual.
I assume that many abandon these commitments because they have determined that they were made under duress or in ignorance. Their new selves are superior to their old selves and therefore they want to cast off their old selves. Such a mindset is not unreasonable to me. However, I see far more benefit than harm in maintaining my commitments. As someone who is likely genetically predisposed to alcoholism and substance abuse, I don’t think it is in my best interest to change course now in that regard. I love my partner in life and have greater hope in my commitment to her now than ever before. I have made commitments about living according to the philosophies of Christ, I don’t think my life would be better off abandoning them. I have made commitments to an institution that I have disagreements with sometimes but one that gives hope to millions and teaches people to lift and serve those around them. I have derived significantly more joy, happiness and peace through my membership in the Church than harm, disappointment or discomfort.
Is it easy? Of course not. And I am confident life wouldn’t be easier under different circumstances.
Will the Church cause me some distress going forward? Yes. But so will my family, my friends, my profession, my government and even my hobbies. I don’t plan on abandoning any of these either.
I think we all feel – at least I do – like we have no idea what we are doing most of the time. As I get older, this truth only becomes clearer: that I know nothing. I am simply doing the best with the experiences I have. My life will never be perfectly rational or have perfect internal consistency. I am flawed. I seek to improve and have hope that I can. I have, however, at moments in my life, experienced glimpses of something that seems bigger than myself, that has given me a familiar peace that is distinct and unique. I have had these experiences while meditating on specific subjects. They have come with a predictable frequency and with a suspicious timing. Is it my brain playing tricks on me? I don’t know. But I won’t deny that I have had these experiences. I believe everyone can. Such moments are sufficiently profound to justify altering some of my behaviors and making commitments to living a certain way. If you have had similar experiences but struggle in your faith, I would encourage you to not forget them. These experiences matter. Although fleeting, they are real and they call you to be your best self. Are they rational? Of course not. But neither is love and few are hasty to abandon it. Ultimately, after stepping away and then returning again, I experienced a familiar peace that seemed to whisper to my soul, “Welcome home” – and that is why I stay.