Welcome back to the show. I’m your host Miranda Anderson and you are listening to Episode 150 of the Live Free Creative podcast: Nuanced Faith Within Organized Religion.
This is an episode that I have been thinking about and preparing for months, and I’ve been really excited to share some thoughts and ideas with you. I’m also little bit nervous that the things that I share will not do justice to the scope and depth and importance of this topic: the topic of faith, spirituality, church communities, and religion.
I know that these are very personal, important, tender, sacred topics. My hope for this episode is that I’m able to share some of my own personal experience and ideas and ultimately to invite you to explore this idea on your own.
I think most of us are affected by the idea of spirituality and faith and even of religion, whether or not we identify as religious ourselves. I know that a lot of the community that listens to this show are members of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which is the church that I belong to.
I also want to recognize that there are members of many different faiths listening here, and also people who don’t identify as religious at all. I believe the ideas I discuss today apply to a wide variety of people, although I will of course be sharing from my personal perspective as a member of the Mormon church.
Hopefully I can offer some insight or a new and different perspective from your own. Maybe I can offer some comfort if you yourself are struggling or going through a hard time related to faith and religion. Maybe I can offer some relate-ability if you yourself are not having a hard time with faith or religion but have friends or family members who seem to be experiencing faith challenges or transitions.
There’s a lot of deep emotion and culture and belief, thoughts, identities, stories, ideas, all tied up in this topic. I hope to just offer a space to begin a conversation.
Before I dive in, I wanted to share a quick pause for a poem.
Pause For A Poem
Mud is not bad for nest building
mud and sticks
and a fallen feather or two will do
and require no reaching.
I could rest there
with my tiny ones
sound for the season at least.
But if I may fly a while,
if I may cut through a sunset going out
in a rainbow, coming back
color upon color sealed in my eyes.
If I may have the unboundaried skies
for my study,
clouds, cities, or rivers for my rooms,
if I may search the centuries
for melody and meaning,
if I may try for the sun,
I shall come back
bearing such beauties
gleaned from God’s and man’s very best
I shall come filled.
And then, oh,
the nest I can build.
On Nest Building by Carolynn Pearson
Main Topic: Nuanced Faith Within Organized Religion
I’m sitting here in front of this microphone with pages of notes and a pile of books that I’ve annotated and gone through again, so that I could put little sticky notes in them with reminders of quotes that I want to share and things that I thought were important and that related to the topics I want to talk about today.
It has felt like a lot. Just trying to put something nuanced into things as concrete as recorded words is an exercise in vulnerability. One important idea I want to convey right upfront is that I know that I do not know—I am aware of my shortcomings and my inability to grasp onto certainty when it comes to spiritual ideas. That is part of the point I’m trying to share.
I went on a walk with a good friend in my neighborhood a couple days ago, and we started talking about the idea of nuanced faith within organized religion. She is also a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints or the Mormon church as it’s often called, and that’s probably how I will refer to it during this episode for ease of talking.
We talked about the concepts and ideas from this episode for FOUR hours. We walked around, over the bridge and around an island and then came back and walked along the river and then walked over another bridge and around a different island and came back. Then we got in the car and we drove home. And then we sat in front of her house for another hour and a half and discussed these ideas.
Needless to say, I could talk for days and months and years about the idea of faith and religion. Specifically, the idea of nuanced faith.
So this episode is not going to cover it all, but I want to just get started.
What is NUANCE?
Do you know what NUANCE means? Webster defines it as “A subtle difference in shade of meaning.”
Did you know when babies are born their eyesight isn’t developed enough to see color? From birth to about four months old, newborns can only identify black and white, especially with bold, solid patterns or faces. Slowly they begin to see the other colors as their eyesight develops.
By around 5 months it’s believed that babies can see color, but when we teach them, where do we begin? With the primary colors of the rainbow. We teach colors with easy names and fairly simple recognition: red, yellow, blue, then green and orange and purple.
At some point, we begin to understand that there are colors all along the spectrum. In between green and blue there is something like turquoise. Add a little more green you get sea foam and a little more blue for something like peacock.
Nuance means we are able to see and acknowledge the subtle shades of difference. Not only between color, but between truth, belief, doctrine, agency, and faith. These things do not exist on a binary of simply good and bad or black or white.
There are questions to be asked. There are curiosities and doubts. There are unique experiences and viewpoints. There are deeper levels of understanding and underneath those levels deeper levels.
So while I am having to just tell myself to calm down and share as much as I can that feels relatable and interesting. Know that there is so much more beyond the ideas and examples I am able to share.
I also want to acknowledge that if for some reason after listening, you are left with more questions than before, lean into that. Having questions always leads to greater and deeper understanding. That is exactly what nuanced faith feels like to me.
Uncertainty is where faith is able to flourish. My hope is not to answer all of your questions. My hope is to help you feel like it’s okay to have them. And I want you to know that I’m right there with you, and I have them as well.
My Personal Faith History
Let me tell you a little about my own, personal experience with religion and faith:
I was born into a family of faithful Latter Day Saints. My parents are both members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
My father’s parents, my grandpa Joe and grandma Helen, were both members of the church for their entire lives. Their parents were members of the church for their entire lives. Their parents were members of the church their whole lives. Their church heritage goes back to the 1800’s, when my multiple great grandfather Orson Hyde was the president of the quorum of the 12 apostles under the prophet Joseph Smith.
On the other side, my great grandparents were baptized members of the church in Denmark in the 1800s. They immigrated to America. They crossed the Plains settled in Utah, and then ultimately in Mexico in a Mormon colony where they could live and practice their faith.
On my mother’s side, my grandfather was raised in the church by parents who were raised by parents who were members, and my grandmother, Mamo, was baptized when my mom was two years old. So, my mom was raised within the Mormon church and the Mormon culture as well.
Needless to say, the church has been a part of my family, culture and tradition for a very long time.
I have five brothers and sisters, three sisters and two brothers. And we were all raised by the same parents within the same family structure, although we’re so spread out that we sometimes talk about how it’s almost like two families. The older four of us are kind of all bunched together, and then the younger two are much younger.
Two of the six of us identify today as practicing members of the church. The other four of my siblings have chosen other communities, spiritual journeys, and faith pathways. So, within my own family, I have incredible opportunities to learn from and understand different viewpoints on religion and spirituality.
My Own Experience
I have personally always really loved church. I love to going to church as a little kid. There were times during my junior high years that I would get a little bored during the main meeting, or sacrament meeting, and I would bring a book. I remember just laying my head on my mom’s shoulder and I would read my book, just happy to be there.
Of course I have always loved to talk, so I really liked to participate in discussions. I was happy to learn. I remember really loving learning about deity, learning about Jesus Christ, learning about my own divine nature, my own inherent immutable self-worth, my own divinity.
As a child of God, I found peace in feeling like I had some answers to some of the questions that might vex other people. Like what happens after this life? Or where did we come from? What is the purpose of being here as a youth? It felt very easy to answer some of those questions with things straight out of the church textbooks. Very black and white. Very simple.
Of course, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that even answers to those types of questions are nuanced and that they’re not completely certain, they are hopeful and faith-filled.
I was also really lucky as a child to learn about recognizing the holy spirit, or recognizing my own intuition, and being able to form a personal relationship with the divine. Those were all things that I was taught in church that felt really important to me.
I grew up feeling close to my Heavenly Parents, my Heavenly Father and my Heavenly Mother. The presence of a divine feminine is one of the doctrines in the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that I have always been super on board with. I have always this identification with a female well deity who loves me and knows me intimately.
As an adult, this is a relationship I’m continuing to explore as it is a doctrine that isn’t explored maybe as fully as I wish that it would be in the church itself. So it’s up to me to find opportunities, to learn more about her and to identify more personally with her.
From the time I was very young, I learned about my Heavenly Parents in church and I felt their presence in nature. I was very young when I recognized that in church wasn’t the only place that I felt the spirit. I have always felt the spirit in nature, out in the world, having new experiences, in sunsets and on the beach and during family game night when I laugh so hard tears roll down my cheeks.
I have been really grateful for the recognition of that feeling. That goodness, that warmth, that hope. The peace and understanding and sometimes the direction. I believe that everything is spiritual, if we look for it, and are open to feeling it.
I’ve had profound, spiritual experiences all throughout my life that have deepened my faith, deepened my personal relationship with the divine, and that have enabled me to find truth in lots of different places.
Agree and Disagree
Along with all of the good and wonderful experiences that I’ve had in the church, I’ve also had many times throughout my life, starting quite young, when there were things that I didn’t feel comfortable with or that I had questions about.
I’ve been lucky, I guess, that I have never felt like having questions was wrong. I never felt I shouldn’t have curiosity or even disagreeing with things that I learned at church was something that I shouldn’t do. I didn’t grow up with very strict rules at home, and as normal kids do, I tended to push the boundaries of the rules we did have. I think I felt similarly about church. I am a questioner by nature, and if I didn’t understand or believe the WHY behind a guideline, I felt okay disagreeing with it. I have not had much of a fear-based relationship with those truths or discrepancies or questions or doubts.
The First Big Difference
One formative experience I had with nuanced faith within the church happened when I was in junior high. I was probably 15 years old when one of my first cousins came out as gay. He is just a couple years older than me and we had been really close growing up. This was in the late nineties in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was a turbulent time. I think things are getting slowly easier. I hope there’s more acceptance, a little bit more understanding, a little bit more allyship and love and support in Utah within the LGBT community than there was then.
I remember as a 15-year-old kid, thinking that I loved this cousin and I was happy for him, rather than believing he was wrong or sinful. I didn’t have a clear answer in my head or understanding as to what his sexual identity meant for him within the context of the Mormon religion, but I did feel like he was still worthy of love, acceptance, and inclusion. And when he didn’t receive those things within our church community, neighborhood, and initially within our family, I felt that we were in the wrong, not him.
This is one moment in my history that I remember grappling with my personal view and opinion clearly differing from the church organization. I found that I could hold both of those things simultaneously. That this might be a question that would remain unanswered. And yet I could love and support my cousin while still belonging to the church.
Currently this applies to me embracing, supporting, and loving my LGBTQ friends and family members while still continuing on my faith journey as a member of the church.
I think back on the wrestle with this experience and with identifying my own personal, nuanced belief about gender and sexual identity as one of the first times that I began to clearly not only see but also define for myself nuanced faith within the church.
Tangent: Can You Be An Ally Within The Church?
And as a quick tangent here, because I opened the issue myself, I have seen some arguments recently that someone cannot both support the LGBTQ community and belong to a church that doesn’t. I understand this in theory, but in practice it feels nearly impossible to assume personal responsibility for the individual practices and values by large organizations that we associate with and belong to.
For example, if I buy clothes at Target, does that mean I assume responsibility for and agree with the detrimental ethical and environmental factors of fast fashion? If I drive through McDonalds with my kids, does that mean I support the huge greenhouse gasses emissions and don’t care at all about global warming? Can I be anti-racist and still support JC Penny, Starbucks, or have a Verizon cell phone, when all of these companies use inmate labor to cut costs?
I guess the question is: do you have to agree and align with every one of an organization’s decisions and purposes in order to belong or identify or support it? I don’t think so. This right here is an example of nuance!
In fact, I think MOST of the organizations we regularly interact with have many current or past practices that we might not fully endorse. If you are able to identify and eliminate those, that’s amazing. If not, I believe we are welcome to embrace the nuance and live into our values in our personal lives, while remaining within and helping increase awareness and diversity of opinion in these organizations.
I also wanted to mention a great podcast episode by my friend Sal Osborne that I just listened to. Her podcast is called Peace Out, and it’s Episode 17: Can one truly be an ally in an organization that is not one?
And this is where is where I step off of the soapbox to continue the show…
Serving A Mission
I knew from a fairly young age that I wanted to go on what we call a mission for the church, a proselyting mission. When I turned 21, I received an opportunity to go to Argentina. I served in the Buenos Aires South mission and spent 18 months teaching and serving in the name of Jesus Christ.
My day to day life as a missionary consisted of gospel and scripture study, teaching of Jesus Christ, inviting people to learn more about him, learn more about Christianity, inviting people to be baptized, to follow Christ’s example, to become part of the church.
I had a fascinating and interesting and incredible experience as a missionary. I met people who were having really a hard time spiritually. I met people having a hard time physically and financially.
I felt like I was able to help with problem solving in some specific logistical, humanitarian ways. I was also able to offer hope and friendship and introduce people to, in some cases, truths that they hadn’t ever heard of that idea of.
I loved sharing a message of a God who was personal and who knews and loves them. I also really loved teaching about the hope that can be found in believing in the redemption that can come through Jesus Christ. Sharing how we can drop the fear and discouragement of our imperfections and lean into the process of becoming better.
When I returned from my mission, I went back to school and a few months later, I met Dave at church. We fell in love, and got married, and as soon as I finished school at the University of Utah, we moved East.
Global Experience In Church
We lived in New Hampshire and Washington, DC and in Austin, Texas, and of course now we’re in Richmond, Virginia. We also lived a few months on the island of Puerto Rico. I had lived in Argentina as a missionary. Dave had lived in Romania as a missionary.
I had lived during college in Costa Rica and in Mexico, we traveled to Thailand and Singapore for a month after we were married. And in all of those places, we were able to attend church. We have been able to see the way that members of the church experienced the gospel of Jesus Christ all around the world. It has been fascinating.
It has been a study in nuance. A study in a culture and in the varying degrees of a very correlated religion. We both feel super grateful to have had these built-in Mormon communities and families and some essences everywhere that we lived because of the church.
Sometimes, within the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, particularly having grown up in the heart of the church, which is in Salt Lake City, Utah, we can begin to believe that the things that we believe and the way that we practice our religion as part of our lifestyle is a baseline for normalcy.
We can begin to believe that Mormons have a monopoly on orthodoxy, or that we are the only religion that has strict lifestyle guidelines, including recommendations about how to dress, speak, eat among other things. We also sometimes believe that we have a monopoly on faith-filled spiritual experiences or truth. I’ll touch on this more later, but for now want to simply say that this is not true.
Millions of people live devout lives of faith to their different religions and feel the influence of their religious affiliation day in and day out, like many Mormons do. Billions of people have access to truth, knowledge, light, faith, spiritual practices, uplifting experiences, and joy, and will live full, beautiful, honorable and exemplary lives even if they never encounter a Mormon.
This may go without saying, but sometimes feels important to remember that while our personal experiences are unique, the idea of faith transitions, struggling with questions inside religion, hoping for change within organizations, and living fulfilling lives are very universal issues.
Every experience connecting with and learning from people different from myself has helped myself think even more deeply and process my own faith.
We have a tendency as human beings to resist things that are different. We have a tendency to cling to things that feel familiar, that feel. Safe and comfortable things that we can easily understand.
Eternal Progression and Development
As we grow up and developed emotionally, psychologically, and intellectually, we can go from that black and white, early-stage developmental viewpoint to understanding different viewpoints, different cultures, different communities, different belief systems. This ability to see and understand the nuance is really beneficial. In fact, it enhances our ability to become more of the people that we hope to be than if we were to just remain safely, comfortably, surrounded by people who are just like us.
One of the doctrines of the church that I really appreciate is the idea that we are able and meant to progress. Eternal progression. This idea makes me think of the more recent, psychological definitions popularized by Carol Dweck of “fixed” and “growth” mindset.
If we were to relate one of those two mindsets to the understanding and doctrine within the church of Jesus Christ of latter day saints, we would definitely say that we all have a spiritual growth mindset or growth ability. We are not fixed, we can grow, we can improve, we can change for the better that life is not plateaued, that we are always able to learn and to grow and to develop and to increase in our joy increase in our understanding, increase in our love, increase in our generosity and our charity.
That is such a beautiful truth. That’s something that resonates deeply with me. And I also recognize that one of the most poignant ways to grow is to be faced with challenges. Sometimes even just being a member of a congregation filled with unique, imperfect individuals doing their best (who you might not agree with on some or most topics) can have challenges.
I believe even that can be an opportunity for growth.
And there is something to be said for life being challenging at times. That’s part of progression. And I think indeed the whole idea of faith being flexible and of our knowledge and understanding, changing over time that those are things that I really believe in.
My Personal “Faith Crisis”
About 12 years ago, I had a couple experiences with some policy decisions that had been made by the church that really shook my foundation. It was my first time experiencing what many would call a “faith crisis.” Looking back, I can see clearly how this experience was a necessary and fundamental shift in not only what, but HOW I believe, and that I am really grateful for it. However, at the time, it was extremely disorienting.
One question and frustration led to another and another and soon I felt like I was questioning everything I had ever believed. In hindsight, it wasn’t that my core beliefs had departed, it is more like they had been scattered around the floor like a broken apart puzzle. I didn’t understand how to make the pieces I loved and wanted to keep fit together with other, new understandings and beliefs. I had been taught that the church was either true or it wasn’t. I had to be all in or out. It was black and white.
And slowly, slowly, I remembered that I knew how to see in color. I was not an infant with two-dimensional understanding, and neither was the church a pile of wooden blocks all stacked up on on top of the other, despite the commonly used visual aid I had illustrated as a missionary.
I was an adult with the ability to see subtly, and to make independent choices. Also, the church was a living, breathing, changing and imperfect organization made up of living, breathing, changing and imperfect humans.
The word itself “perfect”, as it is used in the Bible, from the original Greek in which it was written, refers most closely to what we understand as WHOLE. I believe both the church and myself to be works-in-progress, which necessarily means we are imperfect.
During this faith crisis, I started to identify the pieces of belief that I really wanted to include in my own life. The truths that lifted me up, gave me peace, and helped me become better. I also started to identify and assimilate some of the pieces that came as part of the mixed bag—these things that I couldn’t count out or leave behind (like some of the problematic history of the church).
I also identified some pieces that I didn’t like very much. I realized there were some I could choose to simply leave those aside. My new puzzle of faith doesn’t look at all like the box showed. It is a masterpiece-in-progress as unique as my own soul.
I believe each of us has the chance to piece together spiritual paths that are as varied and unique as we are.
I see this ongoing creation of our faith, this puzzle we each are creating using the pieces we have, those we want to include, as a process of choice. A co-creation with the divine, subtle differences that allow us to be our own best, true selves.
Some people look at the pieces of the church and decide there are far fewer they desire than those they do, so they choose to leave them all behind a build a life without including the church at all. Many millions have lived their own life experience without any pieces of organized religion in their life, and their art is beautiful, too.
Those of us who are either born with the Mormon church puzzle handed to us as whole truth, or who learn to love and embrace it as a whole later in life, will still at some point likely recognize pieces that seem to fit a little less easily for us than they seem to for other people. That doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you, it might mean you want to do a little rearranging until things feel like they settle in again. That might mean leaving some pieces aside for now, and that’s okay.
I Believe Everyone Is Welcome
My personal belief is that whoever want’s even to include even the tiniest piece of the church in their life, should always be welcome to. I think Mormons can and should act, speak, believe and behave as differently as we are inherently unique. Embracing as much as we love and serves us, and freely eliminating what doesn’t fit for us.
Membership in the church and our attendance at church and our worship within this community is a choice. It is within our power to choose differently if you want. Not only to leave the church behind, but to stay differently.
Not surprisingly, the beginning of my personal faith transition overlapped with a time in my life that I was also recognizing the power I had to live life in general my own way. I’ve shared in several different episodes this ah-ha moment I had when listening to a speaker at a conference who said “Do more of what you like and less of what you don’t like.” So simple, but that realization that I had the power to choose changed my whole perspective.
I believe that this is part of our mortal pathway and our divine inheritance the ability to choose what feels right for us. And I deeply believe that those decisions are not meant to mirror everyone else’s decisions.
There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to how to do this life. If it were that way, we would not be living individual lives.
There have been few times in the last dozen years where I have gone to church and thought, “This feels hard.” There have been decisions made within the church that I don’t agree with, or that feel upside down to me, that don’t feel like they are all encompassing, that I don’t believe are for everyone.
And I have chosen to belong. I don’t have to take all or nothing. I choose this fully knowing and believing that that it’s not going to be the right decision for everyone, that this is not the right place, the happiest place, the best place for everyone to experience their own spiritual journey.
So long story short, my own personal faith story includes both strong faith and ongoing questions, ongoing doubts, ongoing curiosities that have led me to truths both inside and outside of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
And I have made most of my decisions as a youth and as an adult relying heavily on my personal relationship with the Divine. And sometimes that personal relationship has in some ways, contradicted or brushed up against some of that guidelines or principles widely understood within the church.
We are meant to choose what feels right for us in combination with our own understanding our own personal relationship with spirituality. I believe that the Mormon Church has room for people whose faith experiences don’t look the same.
We have room for people to choose to belong, no matter the pieces they keep and what pieces they discard. I believe that you don’t need to look or act or behave or choose a certain way in order to be part of this community.
I recognize that living in some areas of the country or world, unfortunately, the church community itself will be harder and less accepting to people choosing to walk their own faith pathway. In some areas people confuse the details with doctrine and the culture with core truth. Some people forget that first commandment is to LOVE and that Christ invited all to come learn of him.
Part of our own family’s experience has been that in the places that we’ve lived, for the most part, we have found a community of saints worshiping in all different ways. We feel like we’ve been able to belong to congregations that create a safe place to ask questions and a safe place to not have all the answers. If where you find yourself doesn’t feel as safe or open, I am so sorry. Know that you do belong, as much as anyone else. And no matter what or how you choose to worship, you are welcome.
Diving Into Five Faith-Related Topics
Now I want to spend the rest of this episode sharing thoughts about five specific topics as we continue to explore the idea of practicing a nuanced faith within organized religion. The topics are:
- Having Questions
- Walking A Personal Spiritual Path
- Living with Inclusion and Love
- How to Balance Disagreement and Belonging
- Seeking Truth Everywhere
To begin this part of the show, I want to share four resources that I’ve found immensely helpful as I’ve tried to learn from the experiences of others and find the words to explain my own thoughts. These four books will all be linked in the show notes at livefreecreative.co/podcast.
I think it’s important to note for people who are listening, who are members of the Mormon church, all four of these books are written by current, practicing members of the church. It often feels easier to listen to people who have a similar experience and background and understanding as you do.
Four Great Resources
The first resource is one I picked up a few years ago and have loved. It’s called Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis by Thomas Wirthlin McConkie. This book talks about adult psychological development through the lens of the Mormon faith.
The book Restoration is a short sweet book by Patrick Q. Mason. He discusses how The Mormon Church can be relevant and meaningful in the 21st century world.
The next book is also by Patrick Q. Mason. It is titled, Planted: Belief and Belonging in and Age of Doubt.
The last book is The Crucible of Doubt by Terry and Fiona Givens. (Do you sense a theme here?) This book is about how doubt is vital to faith, and part of the process.
These books have been extremely comforting and enlightening. And I recommend them to everyone who wants to discover a little bit more about the process of picking up and sorting through your own pieces on the floor, or the table, or wherever your pieces might be.
I recommend these books for anyone experiencing their own faith transitions and finding nuance within their faith or trying to understand whether or not they fit within the Mormon church.
They’re also for you if you feel settled in your faith, and you wonder why so many other people are struggling with doubt. Maybe you have children who have questions and are leaving the church or making other decisions, if you have siblings or friends or family members who you feel like don’t have the same experience and understanding within the religion that you do, these books are helpful for all of those.
The first topic specific topic that I want to touch on is the idea of Having Questions.
I believe that questions are inherently positive. That questions are indeed the purpose. And for members of the Mormon church, we learn that questions were at the foundation of the restored church.
There are different types of questions. Some that we will find answers to and we will like the answers. There are questions we will find answers to that we don’t like or agree with the answers. And there are questions that we will ask over and over again without answers.
When I think of what types of questions we might have, I think of a lesson I once taught years ago in early morning seminary (which is a scripture class for youth within the church and it usually happens super early–my class was at 6 am before I went to my nursing job at 7 am.) The lesson was about the difference between policy or guidelines, principles, and truth. The lesson instructed that I draw a pyramid on the board and that at the base of the pyramid, I write eternal truth. And that the next level up on the pyramid was principles.
And then the final little tip top of the pyramid was policy or guidelines. The purpose with ongoing revelation and us being able to receive new guidance over time, both personally and through the organization itself is that there are things that it leaves allowance for change.
Since the restoration of the church that top piece has changed and been changing. The last few years in particular the church organization has changed in more ways than I ever remember in such a short period of time. Change is invited and welcomed in the church guidelines.
Sometimes we like it, sometimes we don’t. Regardless, based on what we know from history, it would be really silly to confuse guidelines with ETERNAL TRUTH. One is the practice the other is the supposed purpose for the practice. Sometimes, there are a lot of practices that seem to some of us to not be directly founded on top of a truth or principle. Or some that seem to be misaligned. If a policy or guideline–that very top piece–doesn’t align for you with a solid principle or more core truth that you believe in, you will likely have questions.
At the beginning of his book, Thomas McConkie says
“It would be nice if we could claim absolute truth, then spend the rest of our blessed lives, resting on our laurels, but growth doesn’t work this way. We receive further revelation through faith and evolve our faith continually in response.
Doubt is critical in this process. Without doubt, we confuse our small faith with transcendent faith. The story we tell about experience comes to replace the actual experience. We mistake the map for the territory. We inadvertently make idols of empty symbols of language and forget what we had set out to worship in the first place.
Doubt your stories, doubt that you understand the final meaning of life. Do not doubt the reality of the divine. That’s the message.”
He also shares a quote that I love. Where he says,
“We often think of scripture and religious belief as having certain finality. It takes great humility to continually re-examine our stories and challenge our own framing of things to see if we might arrive at something even more true.”
Isn’t that a great quote? Sometimes our questions serve to help us to arrive at something even more true.
Here is a great quote from Patrick Mason,
“Doubt is less a problem in need of solution and more, a common part of the mortal experience that should like all things be treated with charity and ultimately consecrated to God.”
He also talks about and ongoing restoration by saying that,
“Sometimes we think of the restoration of the gospel as something that’s complete and already behind us.
In reality, the restoration is an ongoing process that we’re living right now. It includes all that God has revealed, all that he does now reveal, and many great and important things that he will yet reveal.”
That means that there is more and different coming in the future.
Terrell Givens says,
“Perhaps providing conclusive answers to all of our questions is not the point of true religion. Catholic philosopher, Michael Novak, desired a world of indetermination with all its crisscrossing confusion so that within it freedom could spread out its wings and experiment and find its own way. The grand project in which we’re all engaged is one that moves us away from stasis, ease, comfort, and equilibrium, and toward an end that is not yet determined.
To be open to truth, we must invest in the efforts to free ourselves from our own conditioning and expectations.”
Can you see how doubts and questions are part of the natural process of developing faith? Questions open us up to new truths and new ideas and should be part of our spiritual path, whether inside or outside of an organized religion. I believe that questions and seeking for truth, seeking for answers, whether or not they come, that those, that openness is part of a spiritual life.
Openness to new understanding, new ideas, new experiences, new people, and new cultures is part of the process of becoming whole.
Walking A Personalized Spiritual Path
The next topic I want to talk about is the idea of a Walking a Personalized Spiritual Path.
This piece can feel hard to people who feel that one of the purposes of organized religion is to provide the path that leads the way. We want check marks or rungs on a ladder to mark our progress and also sometimes to compare ourselves to others.
I grew up with this idea that had the whole map. Between the scriptures and attending church and completing the sacred ordinances pertaining to my religion, I thought I could kind of like check all the boxes and be done! For a long time I also really believed that the path I saw before me was also intended for everyone else. It was “The Path” with a capitol T and P.
Now the idea that everyone’s spiritual journey is the same feels very untrue to me. It doesn’t resonate with me at all. I don’t believe that everyone’s pathway is supposed to look the same. I don’t believe that we are all supposed to make the same decisions. I don’t believe that there is one correct way to live.
I believe that deity has created in abundance.
They created all of the diversities in nature in the natural world and within humanity. Our different countries and languages and cultures and people and ideas. I believe there are many spiritual pathways that lead to joy in this life and peace in the next.
In his book Planted, Patrick Mason talks about different modes of belief. He says,
“People believe in different things, but they also believe in different ways. ”
I love that so much. The way we believe the way we exercise our beliefs can be different from other people. And to quote a great children’s book called When Charley Met Emma written by my good friend Amy Webb:
“Different isn’t weird, sad, bad or strange. Different is different. And Different is okay!”
I wonder if you’ve ever thought about the difference between spirituality versus righteousness, or if you believe that there is tension between the idea of obedience and agency or integrity.
Terryl Givens talks about “True religion being a way of life and church, being an institution designed to strengthen people in the exercise of that way of life.”
I know that this idea of Walking a Personalized Spiritual Pathway goes against common understanding that we should take everything or nothing, and that you’re either all in or you’re all out in an organized religion that creates guidelines for many areas of your lifestyle. I have come to the understanding for myself that agency is also a piece of religion.
We can and should make decisions for ourselves in combination with our personal relationship with the divine. That is important. In instances with when our obedience to the tip of the pyramid, the current policy or understanding, or guideline comes in direct conflict with our personal integrity or aligning our actions with our deeper personal values or truth, I feel that I am responsible to maintain my integrity, even if at times that means being disobedient.
You are free to disagree with me on this point.
I see “obedience is the first law of heaven” not because it is the most important, but because it is the most elementary. It comes first in our development, as we aren’t yet able to understand nuance. But, as we grow, we are invited to dance with the Divine.
Simply obeying without making a decision to obey is very black and white. Being able to see the nuance, and aligning with deeper, more everlasting values and truths, may lead you outside the guidelines, yet actually keep you aligned. This is what I am trying to teach my children, even though sometimes it’s tricky.
There may be times where what you are taught to do doesn’t feel aligned with who you want to be with, who you are, what your value, or your love of someone or something. In that instance, I believe you should be true to your inner knowing, in combination with your personal relationship with the divine.
I believe that God understands individuality, understands diversity of opinion, of desire, and of lifestyle. And I’m open to integrity being more valuable personally than obedience.
There may be times when you don’t want to do something, but your deeper value does align with the choice, and it’s just hard. I’m not talking about disobedience for the sake of rebellion. Although that’s a choice available to you as well.
I’m talking about aligning with your personal values and spiritual integrity. In the church, we are taught to ask to know if the things that we’re being taught or the guidelines that are laid forth are true. And I think that sometimes we, we do that with the expectation that the answer will always be, “Yes, Of course!” confirming that what policy has been made or a leader has said is true. But what happens when that is not the case?
The eleventh article of faith written by Joseph Smith boldly proclaims:
“We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God, according to the dictates of our own conscience and we allow all others this same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.”
Have you ever considered applying this declaration within the church as well as without? What if we embraced and allowed nuanced faith and personal spiritual pathways on our own pews and within our walls? I believe that even within an organized church, even within the Mormon church, you should get to choose how, where and what you worship.
Many people may choose to worship in other ways, outside of the church. And that is also their privilege. I think we can be as accepting and respectful of people worshiping in diverse ways within and without of a particular religion. Each faith journey is as unique as the person experiencing it.
Inclusion and Love
The next topic that I want to spend a few minutes discussing is: Inclusion and Love
What does inclusion look like?
I think that the auto response that we might have is: “Of course everyone is welcome. Of course. We want all to come on to Christ. We want them to come and worship, however and whenever they choose with us. We like to think that we don’t judge based on people’s decisions or their appearances or their testimonies!”
And yet most of our real-life experience is that it does seems to matter a little bit what we wear or the choices we make. We don’t always feel like we belong if we don’t fit what feels to be a certain mold.
I love this quote by president Dieter F. Uchdorf that says,
“The church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is a place for people with all kinds of testimonies.
“There are some members of the church whose testimony is sure and burns brightly within them. Others are still striving to know for themselves. The church is home for all to come together, regardless of the depth or height of our testimony. I know of no sign on the door of our meeting houses that says your testimony must be this tall to enter.”
I found one of my favorite definitions or ideas surrounding testimonies in the book Planted by Patrick Mason. He talks about the idea of testimony being a
“Personalized reflection of a singular relationship between a unique eternal intelligence and God.”
I’m going to say that again,
“Testimony is always, and ultimately a highly personalized reflection of a singular relationship between a unique eternal intelligence and God, a personalized relationship between ourselves, our eternal intelligence, and deity or the divine.
“Testimony doesn’t have to reflect on one or another specific doctrines. It doesn’t have to include an entire checklist of things in order to meet any certain threshold that then deems us acceptable to be included. Everyone is welcome. Everyone is invited everyone, regardless of what or where or how you wish to believe or practice can consider themselves among us.”
Something that I feel really strongly about is that we should use our faith and our spiritual journey as an opportunity for personal progression, never as an opportunity or never as a reason, a justification of judgment of others.
Deepak Chopra says this very concisely with this quote,
“Use moral values to uplift others rather than to judge them.”
Often I think that within our organized religions, because of the guidelines, because of the commandments, because of the covenants, because of the different check boxes and pathways to walk, that we all think that we understand clearly we’re able to measure what we believe to be others’ choices against what we believe to be truth.
We have to always keep in mind as we’re considering the idea of inclusion and love within and without the church that other people’s decisions are none of our business. When we think we see sin in other people and begin to judge them, I want to invite you to use this as an opportunity to refocus all of that spiritual attention on your own personal growth, relationship, and development, rather than focusing on the way other people choose to live their religion.
Even if their church is the same as ours, the way will be different, the mode will be different. The decisions made will be different. Our spiritual journey is part of our life and our lives are unique and intended to be unique.
I specifically want to mention one visible area where I think Mormons are really good at judging each other: how people choose to wear or not wear their temple garment, which is part of one of the sacred rituals adult members of the church may choose to participate in. If you are tempted to use the garment as a measuring stick of someone else’s worthiness, I would invite you to consider whether this is the best use of your judgment. Consider using that focus and energy to further your own personal development, rather than reflect or ruminate on others’ individual choices.
Elder Dallin H. Oaks made this point once when he said,
“As a general authority, it’s my responsibility to preach general principles. When I do, I don’t try to define all the exceptions. I only teach the general rules, whether an exception applies to you is your responsibility. You must work that out individually between you and the Lord.”
I love the understanding that there will be exceptions. That all of the guidelines, all of the structure within organized religion is general.
It has to be, logically and logistically, in order to apply broadly across an entire congregation across the entire world. That does not mean that all of it in its entirety is for you. It is your responsibility to take your spiritual bull by the horns and get intimate with the divine.
Make the decisions that feel right by you, that align with your integrity, with your values, with your family, and with your desires. Part of your progression may be understanding what your personal exceptions might be.
And on the other hand, part of your continued progress might be understanding that you do not know other people’s exceptions, and that you cannot judge or decide when others have made a decision that is right for them.
Another related quote that I appreciate comes from Brigham Young, who said,
“I do not wish any Latter Day Saint in this world, nor in heaven, to be satisfied with anything I do, unless the spirit of the Lord Jesus Christ, the spirit of revelation makes them satisfied. I wish them to know for themselves and understand for themselves. I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders, that they will not inquire for themselves of God, whether they are led by him. I’m fearful that they settled down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would tort the purposes of God.
Let every man and woman know by the whisperings of the spirit of God, to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path, the Lord dictates or not.”
This also feels so important and so relatable and often overlooked. We are responsible for our own understanding and our own acceptance of what we will choose.
Some may call it Buffet-style Mormonism, when really this is a process of walking a clear and important individual spiritual pathway for ourselves. That includes being willing to accept the responsibility to not expect everything that we do and say, and all the decisions we make to come directly from the organization.
The church is a vehicle whereby people may develop personal relationships with the divine.
I’ve heard it said that if someone chooses to not abide or obey all of the different covenants or commandments or principles or policies of the church, that they should not be part of the church. That unless you can accept and agree with and participate in and actively engage in every piece that that means that you should not belong.
I fully and completely disagree. We all may belong. We all are invited to come to be part, if we want to. Now that doesn’t mean that everyone has to. If you don’t want to be part of this church, then that’s also well within your own responsibility to make that decision. But if you do, even if there are whole pieces that you don’t agree with or that you don’t practice, as far as I’m concerned, you are welcome.
I invite you to be part as fully or as lightly as you would like to. I know that this is not a globally held view. That can make it tricky because depending on where you live, your congregation may or may not feel as inclusive, as loving as open.
This leads me into my next point, which is that it may be our own responsibility to find a place where we belong within the church, even with disagreements.
Balancing Disagreement and Belonging
If we decide that we want to belong to the church, it’s okay to disagree and still belong. One of the things that has been helpful for me is understand that my relationship to the church is within my control. Also, it has been really helpful to really simplify.
Now, you know that I’m all about simplifying in my life. I try to be super intentional about choices I make and trying to consciously eliminate anything that feels superfluous or unnecessary. I’ve realized it’s the same with the church. I can do the pieces really well that matter most to me, and not burn myself out on all of the things that don’t matter as much.
This is going to be an individual choice and individual decision. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed by everything and it makes you want to throw the baby out with the bath water, I invite you to simplify. To dig deep and spend some time in reflection for what are the core practices and the core beliefs that feel meaningful, that feel lovely, that feel uplifting and delightful and joyful, that feel hopeful, that feel loving? Choose those and let everything else go for a while.
Let everything else go.
The church is only made up of its members, especially a church like the Mormon church that is fully made up of its members. Everyone, including in all leadership positions are volunteers. There isn’t a structure without the people choosing to be part. You can choose to be as involved or uninvolved as you would like to be.
I think it’s time that we expand our views of what it is to be Mormon. Who we are, how we look, how we talk, how we act. Let’s all be more inclusive, and that also might mean making a space for ourselves and choosing to belong.
Another of the ways that I have found it easier to choose to belong is to get comfortable with nuance, get comfortable with complexity and understanding, that there are always other sides. There is the side that I see, the side that I feel deeply about, as well as things that I don’t yet know, and I don’t understand.
I also am very comfortable with the idea of the church being run by very imperfect, however, well-meaning people, and that humanity is not all good or all bad. I can forgive that humanity in others, as I do in myself.
I also am really comfortable with the idea of change. I know that things are changing now, that they will continue to change some in positive ways, according to my own viewpoint and some maybe not. And that is okay. But things will change.
Everything is not complete. And this pursuit of my own spirituality, the pursuit of my own becoming is a lifelong endeavor. I am learning to just be comfortable with the idea that there will always be opposition. There will be contraries, there will be friction and that’s okay.
In his book Restoration, Patrick Canon talks about some of the excess baggage that the church has held onto that it may need to start getting rid of. For some people, this process of de-junking the excess and outdated culture, policy, and guidelines may be uncomfortable. I teach people how to dejunk their closets and many have a difficult time getting rid of old, worn out tee shirts. Imagine trying to unclench their death grip on tradition they’ve grown up with!
I loved all of this discussion of baggage that is holding the church back from relevance in the 21st century, because I think that so many of these pieces are things that I know I’ve struggled with individually and I know that a lot of friends and family members who have a complicated relationship with the church, a lot of that stems from these issues that he discusses.
These are not eternal truths. They are not the bottom of the pyramid. These things we need to move on from are cultural baggage that we’ve picked up along the way. The types of baggage the book specifically addresses are: racism, patriarchy, nationalism, cultural colonization, wealth inequality, and fundamentalism.
Those are some buzz words, right? I am not going to discuss them each here, but make sure you find the book linked in the show notes if you’d like to read more.
It was really interesting to read about each of these ideologies and how they’ve evolved over time within the context of the religion and how the hope is that they will continue to evolve out of the practice and worship over time.
This is one of my favorite quotes from this chapter about historical baggage:
“Introducing too much rigidity into a system can actually increase rather than decrease its risk of failure when subjected to extreme pressure. That is why skyscrapers are designed to sway a few inches in the wind. It’s an unsettling feeling when you’re on the top floors, but it’s far preferable to having the building collapse beneath you.”
I love this idea of flexibility to enable stability.
Rigidity actually makes things more brittle. Holding tightly to things that can and should change over time makes you more susceptible to collapse. Conversely, allowing your own personal ideologies and the way that you practice more deep principles and truths to bend toward love toward inclusion, toward deeper connection, will actually then enable even a stronger relationship to the divine and to yourself and to others.
This also goes both ways. Some people may be tempted to assume that because a member has chosen to agree with and follow visible guidelines down the line of the handbook they must not have any nuance or must be blindly and close-mindedly agreeing with everything without any personal revelation. Just as there are personal pathways that include exceptions and flexibility, there are also personal pathways that align and overlap with orthodoxy. Both and all should be respected.
One point I also need to share with regard to belonging even with nuanced ideas is that it might not be easy in some relationships. You may have family members, friends, or even your own spouse or children who don’t understand, agree with, or even discourage your personal choices with regard to asking questions and walking a personalized spiritual pathway.
I am so sorry. Navigating those changes in relationships can be really, really tough. You may find it helpful to privately work out some of these issues before publicly discussing or sharing them. I have found it to be true that the more personally convicted I am of my choices, the less it matters to me what other’s think about them.
There will always be people who disagree with you on some things, and others who agree with you. I want to make sure that I live in agreement with myself first and foremost, because that is the life that I have to live; my own life.
One resource I can offer for members of the church working out some of these tricky relationships and ideas is Dr. Julie Hanks. She offers real life examples and application of different types of faith practices within the church on her Instagram page.
Seeking Truth Everywhere
The final topic that I want to discuss in the show today is about the idea of Seeking Truth Everywhere.
This is something that I have loved my whole life. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I began to understand that Mormonism didn’t have a monopoly on all goodness and all truth. That ideas seems ridiculous to my adult self, but I grew up in an insular environment, almost everyone I knew was so similar to me. I heard lots of conversion stories about people finding the church and finding real joy. Which is absolutely many peoples’ experience.
I just didn’t happen to hear many stories of people living fulfilling, meaningful lives outside of the church. It was be easy to believe that this might be the only way that happiness can be attained, or that it’s the only way that it should be attained for everyone.
That no longer feels true to me. I believe the church is a really great option for a lot of people, including myself. I also know it is not for everybody.
I also deeply value the truths I have discovered outside of the church! The church isn’t designed to give us all truth, just some. and it invites us to continue to seek it out everywhere!
I learned one of my deepest spiritual lessons from my mission in Argentina while I was sitting in a pew of a Presbyterian church. My companion and I had knocked on the door of a pastor a few days before, and he had invited us to join with his congregation in worship on Sunday.
We went to the church. This was maybe the first time I had been in another church. And we sat in the congregation and we sang with the people. We listened and we learned. The sermon that he gave was about selfishness and sacrifice. It remains with me today. It’s something that I’ve thought of over and over again throughout my life.
It was one of the most profound, spiritual lessons that I learned in the time I spent serving as a missionary. And it was not experienced within the walls of my own chapel.
Likewise, a couple months ago on my retreat in Utah, one of the practices that I’ve chosen to include in all of my retreats as a daily yoga and meditation practice, both of which I found to be profoundly spiritual for me, emotionally connective of course, really great for your body, mind, body, and spirit.
After one of these meditation sessions, one of the women at the camp approached me. She’s a member of the church and she told me “This is the first time that I’ve felt the spirit in a long time. During that meditation. And I’m so grateful that you included this as part of this camp experience. It’s not something that I’ve ever done before. And I’ve always been a little skeptical of the idea of meditation. And I just had a profoundly spiritual experience and I feel so, so glad that I was here for this.”
The idea that we can find goodness, and we can connect deeply to our spiritual selves and the divine only in one way or one avenue greatly limits us. I love the invitation to “seek all things virtuous, lovely, of good report or praiseworthy.”
I want to share a few of the spiritual guides or prophets who I have learned beautiful truths from in different areas of life:
A Regular Meditation Practice from Buddhism and Andy on the Headspace App
The Power of Presence from Eckhart Tolle
Learning about shame, guilt, and vulnerability in a way that has profoundly changed my relationship with myself and with others from Brene Brown
Self Love and the ability to be true to myself from Glennon Doyle
Seeing Divinity In Nature from the poet Mary Oliver
How to be Anti-Racist from Ibram Kendi
How to become more Essentialist and more intentional from Greg McKeown
What has become for me a very spiritual practice of daily gratitude from Janice Kaplan
I have found spiritual guides and teachers within and without of the church. I’ve been able to find truths that resonate deeply with me by seeking and being open to finding it everywhere.
In The Crucible of Doubt, Terryl Givens mentions that:
“Overprescribing from the church creates dependency in the spiritual realm. It’s easy for Mormons to grow accustomed, to viewing their weekly meetings as not only opportunities to serve and renew covenants, but as their primary source of spiritual nourishment, both Robert Frost and the author of Proverbs knew that spiritual strength requires finding one’s own well from which to drink. Mormons should feel empowered and inspired to fill our own wells with nourishing waters.
Surely we can feel at home, not just in our Mormon community of aspiring saints, but in the larger church without walls peopled by the devout, the holy and the exemplary from myriad times and traditions. It is a workshop for the soul, but ultimately we are responsible for our own life of discipleship and for finding spiritual nourishment in our own sacred spaces.”
As I’m wrapping up this idea of living with nuance, faith within organized religion. I hope that I’ve touched on a topic or two that has felt meaningful to you, or maybe expanded your ideas or deepened your own understanding. I also want to acknowledge that having a faith transition going from having your faith field black and white, certain and whole into a space where it all starts to fall apart, where you’ve learned that if one piece isn’t true, that the entire building should come down is very confusing and it’s very overwhelming and it’s very disorienting and it can feel like total chaos.
It can feel like if not everything, then nothing is an easier path.
In my experience, as I have been able to sit within the discomfort and chaos, in the space where nothing makes sense, where all of the pieces that once so neatly fit together in a beautiful little puzzle when I was a child, have had a chance to be scattered around the room—I have been able to pick some them of them back up. I have left some of them behind on the floor. And I continue to rearrange them into something new, and bright, and colorful, and beautiful. In not only seeing but welcoming the nuance and subtle variations in my own truth, I have begun to build a very unique masterpiece. I have found my own spiritual journey that feels even more whole than before.
I feel even more aligned. I feel a deeper connection to the divine. I feel a deeper sense of belonging to myself, even if at times, my belonging within a cookie cutter sense of ideals has felt little bit less comfortable.
I think we can move in this direction. I think that we, as a church, this particular religion has the ability to expand our views, to expand our understanding, to expand our idea of what it means to be on this journey together, whether within or without the church, that we are walking individual nuanced, unique spiritual pathways.
One of my favorite Christian writers, C.S. Lewis, talked about Christianity as being a pathway where one feels “Cheerful Insecurity.”
I love that idea. What does it look like to live with cheerful insecurity? Just not really being sure. Not really knowing everything. Being okay not being okay. Being okay with some of the discomfort that comes of not being able to swallow everything whole.
I want to finish with a quote from the book, Mormon Faith Crisis from Thomas McConkie, where he says,
“It’s my sense that we’re seeing more developmental diversity in our faith communities than at any other time in church history. This doesn’t have to equate to strife and power struggle. Knowing there exists a plurality of coherent and integris ways of making meaning, we can learn to recognize and respect the different worldviews that show up in our faith communities. We can thrive in this new ecology of diversity, manifesting a greater fullness through the many parts of our whole.
Historically the question of how to establish Zion amongst a Gentile nation has been a vexing one. What will we do with all the unbelievers? The non-members development shows us that establishing Zion isn’t simply a matter of converting others to our way of seeing so much as more deeply converting ourselves to seeing more of the whole.
All of us are engaged in the pursuit of a meaningful life. Is our own meaning-making flexible enough to include the meaning of others. Zion needs all of our perspectives in order to flourish, we can become the sons and daughters of God yet, not through the narrowing of orthodoxy, but through a multiplying of human and defined perspectives. Always more numerous than the grains of sand along the beach.”
Well friends, we have made it to the end of this discussion for today. Like I mentioned at the top of the show, this is a topic I could explore for many hours. Instead of continuing to listen to my personal ideas about it, I now invite you to consider some of your own.
How is your personal faith nuanced? Are you able to see the subtly in doctrine and religion, and welcome it? Do you feel like you are currently developing your spirituality, in whatever personal pathway you feel inclined?
I hope this show has brought you some peace and maybe even also a little discomfort, because that is how we learn and grow.
Thank you for tuning in. If you can think of someone who you think may appreciate or enjoy this discussion, please send this show their way. Feel free to take a screen shot and share it on social media. Send a text or email to friends and family members. Use this as a jumping off point for exploring some of your own ideas, whether you agree or disagree with the points I have made.
I believe in divine creators who know and love all of us individually. I believe the universe bends in my favor, and I am invited to explore my personal, individual desires and purposes. I hope you know, whatever you believe yourself, that you are inherently worthy, wonderful, and welcome.
Have a lovely week, I’ll be back with a lot lighter show next week, so tune in then!