I used to be Mormon, or Latter-day Saint, as we sometimes preferred to call ourselves. And while religion is not entirely quantifiable, I tried to be very Mormon. I had a convert’s zeal instead of pioneer ancestors, and there was plenty of social pressure to overcompensate. I would be rebellious against Mormon cultural norms that were not official (or at least not enforced) doctrine: I’d wear blue dress shirts to church or sport a beard or vote Democrat or be a vegetarian; but when it came to the rules and the expectations, I “knew” Mormonism was “true” and I was trying to “endure to the end”–to use the cultural lingo.
I served as a missionary to San Diego. I accepted and loved my callings (assigned, never requested, church responsibilities). I spent two of the happiest summers of my life working for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints youth conference programme, EFY. I married a fellow EFY counsellor in the Newport Beach Temple. I worked for the seminaries and institutes. I was as all in as I knew how to be. I said my daily prayers. I read the Book of Mormon. I wore my temple garments day and night. I kept the Word of Wisdom (Mormon prohibitions on alcohol, tobacco, coffee, tea, and maybe, but probably, not caffeinated soda pop; I erred on the side of safety). I paid my often impoverished tithing. I obeyed the law of chastity. I went to the temple at least monthly.
In the depths of my devotion, I, like so many Mormons, saw those who left the church as less valiant, perhaps easily offended or perhaps morally weak or perhaps exhausted from righteousness. In Mormonism, there seem to be two colossal failures one can achieve: divorce and apostasy. I had already committed suburbia’s greatest failing–dropping out of high school, so I had to double down and get these right. No matter what.
Fast forward to today. I am an apostate. I do not get a burning in the bosom or warm feeling when I see a Latter-day Saint temple, I get a lump in my throat. It is a sight of pain, and not holiness, for me. When I see young Mormon missionaries, I am sad, because I know they are required to be happy, and I know it was the loneliest and saddest time of my life, and I think about running up to them and saying, “You don’t have to do this. You can wake up from this dream and start living,” but I know if some 34-year-old ex-Mormon had walked up to me and told me it was all a lie and I could find freedom beyond, I would have just tried to save him back into the fold, while my companion would usher me away, not wanting to jeopardise my faith with those most dangerous of people: ex-Mormons, the people who disagree based on their own experience, rather than anti-Mormons, the people who disagree based on internet conspiracy theories (only some of which are true).
I am pretty far gone by Mormon standards. I have a master’s degree in theology, not a plus. I am nearly done with a doctorate in theology, even worse. I am ordained clergy in another tradition. Yet there are some who hold out hope for me.
Every six months, the global leaders (“The General Authorities”) of Mormonism give 10 hours of talks to the saints around the world over a weekend at the “General Conference.” Every General Conference, my Facebook newsfeed is full of friends imploring me to gather with them to hear the prophets (the top 15 leaders in Mormonism are religiously considered “prophets, seers, and revelators”) speak. And every six months, though admittedly not for all 10 hours, I say, “Challenge accepted.”
This past conference, Elder M. Russell Ballard, member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (considered to be today in the same and equally important ecclesial position as the originally twelve apostles), who in an odd aside was briefly my pen pal, c. 2002, gave a talk he entitled “To Whom Shall We Go?” (from which all subsequent quotations, unless otherwise noted, will come).
Early on, he begins with a poignant Bible passage, and as often the case, more elegant in the King James translation:
One of the most heart-wrenching stories in scripture occurred when ‘many of [the Lord’s] disciples’ found it hard to accept His teachings and doctrine, and they went back, and walked no more with him. As these disciples left, Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, ‘Will ye also go away?’ Peter responded: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.
Like King George’s creepy-abusive-ex-boyfriend break-up songs in Hamilton, one of the go-to ways Mormonism discourages dissent and apostasy is to paint a bleak picture of what awaits those leave. This is a long-standing tradition. To leave the church, we are assured, is to abandon God, our families, and true happiness itself.
If any one of you is faltering in your faith, I ask you the same question that Peter asked: ‘To whom shall [you] go?’ If you choose to become inactive or to leave the restored Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, where will you go? What will you do?
I am not going to emphasise why I left. I want to talk about that question.
I went on a journey of a few years. Indeed there is great comfort and simplicity in men in Utah telling you they speak for God, they uniquely speak for God, and these are the answers. And I have spent years wrestling wth the revelation, “I am an adult. I am reasonably intelligent and quite well educated adult. And I don’t know what I believe about God. Or the Bible. Or coffee. Or beer. Or sex. Or dating. Or picking out my own underwear at the store.” It was disorienting and confusing and horrifying, but there is a sweet liberty in the chance to sort it out for yourself. (I now even think I, possibly for the first time, know what I think about some of those topics.)
Where have I ended up? What do I?
I am the associate pastor for children and families, youth, and students at the Anglican cathedral in Montréal and a university chaplain. And as Galinda the Good Witch says, No, I couldn’t be happier.
My ex-Mormon friends all ended up different places, in our careers and family life and geography, and faith lives. A few, who weren’t even from Utah, only ended up in Utah as ex-Mormons. Life and/or God can be hilarious. In every case, my ex-Mormon friends, though our paths are all quite different, have ended up more truly themselves than I ever witnessed any of us being within the church.
In that moment, when others focused on what they could not accept, the Apostles chose to focus on what they did believe and know, and as a result, they remained with Christ.
Ballard appeals to us to focus on what we know, and thus remain. But he implicitly assumes a false conflation: that the things we know prove the whole package deal of Mormonism. He also conflates the truth we may experience in Jesus with the sum totality of Mormonism:
Today is no different. For some, Christ’s invitation to believe and remain continues to be hard—or difficult to accept. Some disciples struggle to understand a specific Church policy or teaching. Others find concerns in our history or in the imperfections of some members and leaders, past and present. Still others find it difficult to live a religion that requires so much. Finally, some have become ‘weary in well-doing.’ For these and other reasons, some Church members vacillate in their faith, wondering if perhaps they should follow those who ‘went back, and walked no more’ with Jesus.
Note that idea: that following and remaining with Christ means in Ballard’s church. Walking with Jesus means in Ballard’s church. This is because Elder Ballard believes his church is the Church of Jesus Christ. It is no less manipulative for its sincerity.
He asks where we would go if we leave the church, and he then tries to wrap any religious experience, any experience of God’s love or Christ’s grace, in with his institution, so that the obvious answer is obfuscated. Where could a devout follower of Jesus Christ go, instead, when they discover their particular church has corrupt policies, dishonest teachings, troublesome history (an aside: no human organisation is free of problematic history, but Mormonism is quite particular in its Orwellian official denials of its problematic history), or imperfect leaders (again, no tradition is free of imperfect leaders, but Mormonism is particularly vicious in its treatment of those who dare to point it out or seek accountability)?
The obvious answer is that they could go to another Christian church. I did!
But Elder Ballard wants to make the faithful and apostate alike accept a simple premise: Jesus and Mormonism go hand in hand. It makes any positive experience of Christianity in general a testimony of Mormonism in particular. And I think the converse effect of this strategy is why most ex-Mormons I know personally are now not religious at all. They too have accepted this premise, that their Mormon experience is what organised religion just inevitably is. So they reject it all.
I’m sympathetic to that.
I did not avoid that and end up devoutly Christian in another tradition because of my greater faith or righteousness. I did because of a fluke of my biography: I was already Christian when I become Mormon as a teenager. I already had experiences of the Bible touching my heart, of Jesus’ grace hitting me and surprising me. Even when I believed The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the “one true church,” I never imagined a God limited to its limits.
I knew the faithfulness of God did not depend on the perfection and authority of God’s (self) appointed spokespeople.
Another deeply concerning approach Elder Ballard takes in this passage is the implicit critique of those of us who left. It is a bit meant to make apostates like me feel badly, but I think it is far more effective to make those who stay feel superior. We apostates are hacks who can’t live up to responsibilities of Mormonism and are just too tired to keep doing good, as if we who leave abandon hard work and compassion and self-control. Going to seminary and becoming a pastor was a terrible way to leave Mormonism if my goal was to get slack about religion asking too much of me.
Where will you go to find others who share your belief in personal, loving Heavenly Parents, who teach us how to return to Their eternal presence?
Jesus said that wherever two or three gathered in His Name, there he is also. I stopped looking for others who had been told the same thing and expressed it in the same words, those who “share my belief,” and started looking for those who had encountered the same indescribable grace, penetrating forgiveness and hope with no good earthly experience, and who will share my awe and response.
And while I have a church home that I love, I have discovered those sacred encounters with my fellow saints and not bound to any particular service or tradition. I have had these holy encounters in my own parish’s mass, but I have had it in Amish farms and churches of all denominations, and in lunches with rabbis.
Where will you go to be taught about a Savior who is your best friend, who not only suffered for your sins but who also suffered ‘pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind’ so ‘that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities,’ including, I believe, the infirmity of loss of faith?
At the risk of being glib, Elder Ballard, if you mean that Book of Mormon phrasing, sure, checkmate. If you mean where else could I find those proclaiming a loving saviour, full of empathy, and powerful to heal? The simple answer is nearly any other Christian church on earth, and some cases better.
For those of us who God created in a mould other than gender-stereotype-conforming heterosexuals, for example, “mercy” and “succor” are not the words we may be inclined to use to describe the Jesus Christ presented in Mormonism, the Jesus who speaks through the General Authorities and the BYU administrators who offer precious little in the way of mercy or succor.
Elder Ballard creates a sense of uniqueness that is simply false to create an institutional, not spiritual, loyalty.
Where will you go to learn more about Heavenly Father’s plan for our eternal happiness and peace, a plan that is filled with wondrous possibilities, teachings, and guidance for our mortal and eternal lives? Remember, the plan of salvation gives mortal life meaning, purpose, and direction.
Where will I learn about the possibilities of life, and teachings and guidance? Where will I find meaning, purpose, and direction?
When I left a church that said no true Christianity existed from St. Paul through 1820, a lot of doors of teachings were closed. But, Elder Ballard, may I suggest, a graduate school of theology’s library? What can one learn when I enter a world where I have Augustine, and Aquinas, and Hildegard, and Waldo, and Luther, and Calvin, and Cranmer, and Spurgeon, and Lewis, and Barth, and so so so many more? When one is free to learn, but not bound to accept everything they all say? I learn about meaning when I am free to admit who I am, and not force myself to conform to what The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints says my gender role must be. I learn about purpose when I am surrounded by intelligent friends and mentors who talk with me, pray with me, struggle with me as I decide what to do next in my church life, rather than the “purpose” that comes of a hastily made assignment that likely has more to do with my age, gender, and financial status than my truly spiritual gifts. And as far as direction goes, I have given up a one-size-fits-all set of rules and life expectations for “discernment,” for wrestling with the questions, armed with the Bible and theologians and friends and mentors. It’s so much messier. It’s not the lazy way. It is harder work.
Where will you go to find a detailed and inspired Church organizational structure through which you are taught and supported by men and women who are deeply committed to serving the Lord by serving you and your family?
I attend one now. I was ordained by laying on of hands in a cathedral by a bishop whose line of authority historically goes back to Jesus Christ, no great apostasy interruption. And I am supported by men and women, and I am led by men and women, whose commitment is obvious in their service to the Lord, to the church, to the community, to my family.
Where will you go to find living prophets and apostles, who are called by God to give you another resource for counsel, understanding, comfort, and inspiration for the challenges of our day?
In the Old Testament, prophets were not always, not even usually, raised up in orderly fashion. They were the agents of holy chaos. Perhaps elderly and sage and respected, but just as possibly young and screaming naked in the streets. True and living prophets are all around us, boldly proclaiming truth. How many prophets do we miss by assuming our institution has claim on all of them? Apostles are those sent out by God.
Where will you go to find people who live by a prescribed set of values and standards that you share and want to pass along to your children and grandchildren?
I suppose, Elder Ballard, this is the heart of the struggle I had with Mormonism. In the end, I did not share the values and standards. I wanted to run youth programmes that put compassion and cooperation before enforcing skirt lengths or gender segregation. I wanted to think of the morality of human sexuality in terms of love and consent and safety and respect and not gender and law and judgment.
And where will you go to experience the joy that comes through the saving ordinances and covenants of the temple?
I have been in temple celestial rooms, in Montréal, where I live, in Boston where I am from, in San Diego where I was a missionary, and many more places. There is a calm and peace there, for sure.
But joy? I did not find joy in the temple. I found mostly obedience and secrecy and isolation.
In my church now, I see saving ordinances and covenants, the historic sacraments instituted by Jesus himself, celebrated, with songs and choirs and organs and pianos and bells and awe and joy. I stand side by side at the holy altar with men and women of deep faith and holy example, all of whom would be disqualified by the arbitrary and discriminatory shallow obsessions of Mormonism. When those who I love and those who love the same Lord Jesus stand with me at the altar of the cathedral, as sanctus bells ring, as a crowd of faithful watch the Body and Blood of Jesus elevated for them to see, and they are each invited–wearing whatever they are wearing, being whoever they are–to come and see, to take and eat, that is joy, that is salvation, that is covenant.
To whom have I gone? To Jesus Christ.
To where have I gone and where can others go?
To any true church of Jesus Christ.
Beware of those who call themselves the true church of Jesus Christ. The Jesus worth following, the Jesus who calls us to follow, is bigger than any one human institution.