We all use labels whether for self-identification or to identify others. All too often, labeling others is used as a method of marginalization. However, this is not always the case. Labels can also be used to empower. For example, we label others as heroes, not with the intent of denigrating but rather, perhaps, in recognition of rare acts of bravery and selflessness. For the majority of her life, my mother felt different from her sibling and peers. By a few, she was simply called dumb or annoying. This negatively affected her self-esteem and sense of worth. It wasn’t until her adult years that she was finally diagnosed as having a learning disability. This label gave her a tool by which she could understand and ultimately accept her differences. Labels can be helpful. But labels also carry with them a certain expectation of shared experiences. Among many Mormons (particularly those engaged in social media) the term “faith transitioning” has become a common label for those whose faith and comfort with the Church has been somehow disrupted.
I don’t consider myself a “faith-transitioned” Mormon.
I do not use this label because there seems to be an assumption associated with faith-transitioning that involves a cycle of questioning and doubting, followed by either severance from or reconciliation with the Church. This has not been my experience—at least not in the sense of ever having seriously considered leaving the Church as an option or even a desire. I’ve had my fair share of questions and historical “surprises,” and I have my fair share of disagreements with the social and cultural leanings of the Church, but I haven’t really gone through a process of deciding whether or not I wanted to remain a member over those reasons.
If anything, going through a process of evaluating my beliefs and values has led to greater empathy for those who do struggle with the decision of whether or not they can remain in a healthy relationship with the Church. I have greater empathy for those who decide that they, in all good conscience, cannot remain an adherent of their faith tradition without emotional or psychological trauma.
I also recognize that certain factors in my life have made it easier for me than for some to remain positively engaged with the Church. Our life circumstances are particular. While groups of people often share experiences, my experiences are my own just as yours are your own. Had my circumstances been different, my outcome would likely have also been different:
1. I didn’t have very far to fall. I wasn’t raised in a devout family. My mother converted to the Mormon faith when I was eleven and just as quickly went inactive through my teenage years. I did not serve a mission for the Church. I never attended seminary. I did not attend a Church school. I was not involved in the Young Men’s program, etc. The cultural indoctrination was never there for me. I had many friends who attended many different churches, and I never internalized the “only true church” mantra. Instead, my views on religious traditions evolved into more humanist/universalist appreciation for what different churches and religious groups have to offer, and how much cultural/familial identity is tied into religious affiliation. In my experience, those who have placed the highest stakes on the Church being the only valid source of God’s light fall hardest when their faith unravels.
2. When I did finally become active, it was in an inner-urban ward that was significantly more diverse than average. We had outspoken feminists; open gay, lesbian, and transgender members; and academically-engaged intellectuals (our building was was near the University of Washington in Seattle). I served in the bishopric of this ward, which is where my experiences with those who struggle with their activity really began. The bishop I served with was one who truly welcomed all regardless of life’s circumstances; a bishop who rejoiced when he smelled nicotine in the chapel; who understood his role as a minister and was uncomfortable with the label “judge in Israel.” Through this, I learned how deeply our experience is anchored to local congregations, and how much of a difference a few good leaders can make.
3. I fit the mold. I am a white, heterosexual, male who is married with a pile of kids and a minivan and who has maintained a temple recommend and served faithfully in callings. I do not come across as threatening to the social norms of the Church and so I am rarely questioned or made to feel like an outsider. I don’t wear this as a badge of honor. In many ways, the privilege I experience makes me aware of how much more comfortable Mormonism is for me than for others simply by virtue of my ethnicity, sexual identity, and marital status.
4. My questions about Church history led to a broader general interest in history. In 2011, my family moved to Utah and I returned to college after a long hiatus to earn a degree in history. Along the way, I interned with the LDS Church History Department and did a summer fellowship in Nauvoo, working on the Joseph Smith Historic Site (operated by the Community of Christ). Studying and researching the history of the Church surrounded by highly-qualified, believing historians has shown me that it is quite possible to remain positively engaged with the Church while being aware of the more challenging aspects of its past. It has also shown me that Mormonism has had a variety expressions and seismic shifts throughout its history. The way we currently define what it means to be a Mormon is the product of its own unique set of circumstances that developed and solidified over time.
I’ve accepted the idea that belief, at least for me, is not static and concrete, but rather active and somewhat nebulous. The scriptures teach that faith is a gift (1 Corinthians 12:8-9). Faith is also a mystery in the sense that its very nature is to ask us to believe incredible propositions that very often seem to be the least likely scenario. However, religion is far more substantive (and perhaps sustainable) than mere reliance on supernatural claims. Religion, at its best, offers a cohesive sense of social/cultural identity and communal responsibility. It is the pragmatic, tangible, and even mundane things about religious observance that I am more inspired by and committed to (see Eugene England’s essay, “Why the Church is as True as the Gospel“). I believe in creating a Zion community, and I see God in the faces of other people. In this sense, I embrace the practice of faith as commitment to more than just a system of belief.
If I have transitioned, it has been in transitioning away from a dominant emphasis on the cosmic unknowables regarding the hereafter; instead, placing my focus on the earthy and material pain and suffering within our midst. To put it bluntly, I agree with Karl Marx’s assessment that “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.” Religion is also the “opiate of the masses” insomuch that excessive devotion to a future world or state of being can numb us to the injustices of the world that surrounds us now. Focusing attention on our own eternal reward is a selfish endeavor whilst we stand idly in the midst of so much suffering. I believe mine was a transition towards, not away from, the Gospel—at least the Gospel as I understand and hope it to be. Never a question of whether to remain Mormon, but rather how to make my Mormonism relevant to the world around us.
Perhaps I am a “faith-transitioned” Mormon, after all.