The First Time…

They say that everyone remembers the first time :)  I certainly do… remember the first time I admitted my disbelief.

After graduating from college I was fortunate enough to land a job with a prestigious international strategy consulting firm.  My job was difficult but rewarding–I worked long hours, traveled extensively and was expected to perform at a very high level with little oversight.  On one case, I was working with a senior consultant named Jen (not her real name–I’m changing her name not to hide her identity but because unfortunately her real name slips my mind at the moment).  I had come to respect Jen immensely.  She was very bright, very positive, and was an intense and determined listener.  The way she listened made you want to be all the more careful about what you said.  As a consultant there is always the tendency to overstate your level of confidence based on the data in front of you, but Jen could always discern the weakness in your conclusion without making you feel like an idiot.  Based on my reviews, I could tell that I had made a good impression on Jen as well.  I was pleased to know that by carefully collecting, analyzing and interpreting data I had earned her respect.

One time we were traveling between client meetings from the DC area to Manhattan.   Storms had ground all flights and so together we rented a car and began our 3+ hour drive.   We had never really had a “non-work” conversation, and so we started talking about our families.  Her husband was from the South American country were I had served my mission, and he was also a sociologist studying religious conversion and religious communities.  She knew that I was Mormon and was eager to hear about my experiences in South America.  I gave her the “greatest two years” story (I still feel that those were two pretty incredible years).  She then asked me for the quick version of Mormon history and theology.  I walked her through the Joseph Smith first vision, and she nodded politely.  After all, if it weren’t for Joseph Smith’s own contradictions of the account (which neither of us at the time were aware of), how can you empirically challenge his claim?  We quickly moved on to the golden plates and the *real* history of the American Indian.  As I paused to take a breath she said, “you don’t really believe that, do you?”

As I said, I had already come to respect Jen for her intellectual integrity.  When Jen posed this question to me, she did so without guile.  She had no agenda, there was no one listening.  She said the question with the same straight face with which she would challenge my assumptions regarding the market size for anti-retroviral drugs in Southeast Asia.  She asked the question because she knew that I was smart, educated and logical–and that the claim my religion was making about the origin of the Indians was anything but educated and logical.  Anyone who has had a conversation with a consultant like Jen will know what I am talking about.  They will also know that consultants have a tendency to talk *really fast*.  Because of the pace of the conversation, I didn’t have time to think before I blurted out:

“I can accept that some parts of our history are apocryphal”.

No sooner had the words escaped my lips when I thought: “I can’t believe I just said that!”  It was exactly what was in my head at that time, and was the core of the realization that I came to when I was a 12 year old reading Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites (see previous post).  I felt a rush of excitement from the “danger” of what I had done… after all, there were two other employees of the firm in my office that I attended church with.  [One of them was simultaneously my church boss and my work boss.  And I couldn’t stand him.  Those were a long 6 months before he left for business school.  But I digress.]

Sadly, since that experience nearly a decade ago I have not had many repeats.  To most people inside and outside of the church I’m the model believer.  When will I next take the opportunity to bear my “un-testimony”?

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I am a Mormon… and a Mormon must believe.

Yesterday the musical “The Book of Mormon” took home oodles of Tony awards.  I’m very much a musical enthusiast, and when I saw that one of their awards was “original score”, I knew that it was time to check it out.  So I downloaded one of the more popular tracks from iTunes called “I believe”.  For the next 30 minutes I listened to that song over, and over and over again.  Not since my Seattle-grunge phase in high school had I put a song on repeat for that long.  It turns out that “I Believe” isn’t just a catchy showtune, it was for me an emotional roller-coaster that mimicked the alternate highs and lows of my life as an active Mormon  whose intensity of belief is often matched by a certainty of doubt.

“Ever since I was a child I tried to be the best… My family and friends all said I was blessed… so what happened?”

I distinctly remember the day when my mother sat me down and told me that she had received a strong spiritual prompting that I was to be a leader in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.  For as long as I could remember I had been told that I had been born in a special time for a special purpose – I was one of “Saturday’s Warriors” and that my life was to be a beacon for others.  My mother is not a woman of ordinary faith.  She is of the “let’s put our hands on this oxen and heal it so we can push this wagon to Zion” ilk.  When she told me that I was to become a GA (general authority), I took that as being a prophecy.   Doubt began not soon after, and with doubt came fear… ‘will my doubt preclude me from “being the best”‘?

“I believe, that the Lord God created the Universe.  I believe, that He sent His only Son to die for my sins”

At the beginning of this rousing chorus, I felt the stirring that I have often felt (the Spirit?  emotions?  the Spirit working through emotions?)  “Yes!  I do believe that!”  I have memories of these feelings that are poignant and real.  They go back to my baptism, my first convert baptism in the mission field, and blessing my children.  It is what stops me from giving fully into doubt, even though my doubt keeps me fully from belief.  These two ideals have been a source of real power to me.

“And I believe, that Ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America”

Oh.  My high-flying spirit/emotion gave way instantly to the cold reality of reason.  Having had practice, I transitioned through the cognitive dissonance rather rapidly.

Shortly after my mothers prophecy about my future responsibilities in SLC, I was reading a book called “Tennis Shoes Among the Nephites” – a historical fiction/fictional-history fiction that talks about a wayward Mormon boy who went back to live in Book of Mormon days with his devout and intellectual Mormon friend.  At one point the devout friend stated that archeologists had already mapped 90% of the Book of Mormon geography to actual locations in Central and South America.  This was huge!  I couldn’t wait until my mother took me to the library, and although by this time I was a voracious reader, I think that even she was surprised by the large armfuls of books on Incas, Mayans, paleontology, and archaeology.  As I read, I found a significant amount of information of the ancestry, history and timeframe of ancient Americans.  I learned about the Bering Strait, the Clovis, and the 30,000 years of humanity that has existed on the American continent.  Finally I found one short paragraph that spoke of the Mormon’s belief that America had been settled by Ancient Jews around 600 BC.  The paragraph ended by stating that no archaeologist believed that this was an accurate representation of the history and pre-history of the Americas.  Perplexed, I asked my mother why… without missing a beat she responded “well if they believed they would be Mormon!” and then suggested that they may have ignored evidence that pointed toward the Book of Mormon’s truthfulness.  Problem solved… sort of (enter DNA evidence 15 years later).

“You cannot believe just part way, you have to believe it all”

We can credit the Church leaders with the all or nothing mantra, although I admit that it is the only logically consistent approach.  Never one to mince words, Elder McConkie said “Either the Book of Mormon is true, or it is false; either it came from God, or it was spawned in the infernal realms.”  The first binary option is likely the complete range of choices, at least how the Mormon church defines truth.  The second is more debatable, and omits the shades of gray that humanity tends to operate in.  The problem is the “all or nothing” means that any hole sinks the ship, and after sincere careful study there are no shortage of holes in the ship.  What to do then when you can no longer agree that Adam was the first man 6,000 years ago, or that God might not have really been that in favor of Joseph Smith marrying teenage girls and otherwise-happily-married women, or that maybe the priesthood prohibition on black people was manmade and not God-made prejudice?  After a while you run out of fingers to plug the holes…

——

“Not knowing beforehand”  Molly-, Anti-, Jack-, Post-, Ex- Mormons will likely recognize this as a quote from the first narrator of the Book of Mormon, the prophet Nephi. Given a challenge from God, he tells the reader that he had know idea what he was going to do and was counting on the Lord to guide him.  And tell him He did – the Lord told Nephi to rob the government of historical records, kidnap one government official, and behead an unconscious government leader.  Unlike Nephi, I don’t plan on following any voices to kidnap, steal and murder.  However like Nephi… I don’t know where my future lies.  For now I am a closet skeptic, an anonymous agnostic.  On Sunday I am there pitching in with callings, sacrament, and the eternal folding and unfolding of chairs… and allowing my heart full reign to fellowship with the Saints.  Meanwhile my head takes a three hour vacation.  But what about tomorrow?  I may climb up on the proverbial wall and pronounce my un-testimony to the world, and brave the arrows from below.  I may find myself confronted by the angel on the Road to Damascus that helps me move beyond my disbelief and maybe accomplish a measure of my mother’s prophecy.  I may continue with status quo.  For now… I will blog.

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