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.