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Doing Religion Wrong: Going to Church

August 8, 2011

Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.

2 Nephi 2:27

While you are free to choose for yourself, you are not free to choose the consequences of your actions.

For the Strength of Youth

One of my first things I discovered when I disassociated from the church was that I didn’t even get something as simple as going to church right.

How can you mess that up? Man, I must have been a really stupid kid. Or really wicked. (But of course!)

What I mean was that, like fasting, I wasn’t doing it for the “right” reasons.

When I was growing up, my parents really tried to emphasize that we had agency. So we weren’t required to go to church. We weren’t forced. If it was time to go and we were ready, we would go. If it was time to go and we weren’t, then we were left behind without being disturbed.

But consider those quotes from above. Agency from a Mormon perspective has a nice little caveat (and one that makes sense, really). You are free to choose, but not the consequences. My father also liked that phrase. The Book of Mormon phrases it more starkly — your choice will either be liberty and eternal life…or captivity and death. With choices like these, who needs fatalistic determinism?

My brother often didn’t get the hint. He wouldn’t go to church, and then he wouldn’t understand (or maybe he perfectly understood, but didn’t care — Mormon teen rebelliousness is so tame compared to the regular form) why my father would be displeased with him later that day or that week. And so, the message I got (however implicit and unspoken) was…go to church, whether you want to or not, if you want to be on mom and dad’s good side for the week.

…OK, so things weren’t quite as dire as that. I promise, my family wasn’t a bad Mormon family, honest! (Just idiosyncratic. With our own S-ian way of doing things.) But as with fasting, there was this idea that going to church was something to do because good Mormons do that. I certainly didn’t want to be someone that people talked about. An inactive.

Disassociating from the church was interesting in a couple of ways. First, I became really interested to see if people would talk about me, and if they did, what would they say. Whenever I go back home, I always want to know what people from the ward have been saying. (Unfortunately, they seem to accept that my absence is just because I’m away at college, and while this is true, they probably do not suspect that I don’t attend here. On a more positive note, maybe I just have enough good capital that people recognize that I’m still the same good kid, whether I attend or not.)

Sometimes I would go back on a particular Sunday during summer break…those times, church would be exciting. Like nothing I’ve experienced before when I was an active member. Even talking to people who annoyed me way back when was something to look forward to, because they were my annoying people.

I may have alluded to this before on this blog (since I had these thoughts far before I had them with respect to something particular like tithing), but what I really like about occasionally attending now is how unconstrained I can be. If I go (which, let’s be frank…it’s still very rare…maybe once a year), I go purely because I want to. Not because “that’s what good Mormons do.” Not because that’s what my parents want. Not because that’s what “God” wants.

And my answers in class (BTW, most of you probably realize this because you are adults and have been to church as an adult, but the adult classes are way better than the youth classes. That’s probably the one thing I regret about having attended during childhood and teenage years but not at all now…it’s just more ENTERTAINING [in a higher level way]) weren’t constrained to answering the “correct” responses. Or rather, they were “correct,” but with an edge. I’d try to answer something that would be scripturally supportable, but which would be controversial and even somewhat iconoclastic.

And the best thing was…unlike in classes with kids, where most of the class didn’t have enough awareness of anything to respond, people could engage back with my comments.

(As a side note, I envy the wards that have bloggernacle people and bloggernacle types in them. Because I imagine classes are like that, only more so.)

Now…I am not a Saint (pun intended?) Even when I say, “I go when I want to,” I don’t pretend that my desires are in tune with anything convincingly Mormon. When I go because I want to, what I want is to catch up, to socialize, to have decent conversations in the Mormon language of my upbringing. (Hmm…maybe that is exactly a Mormon reason.) (These are much of the same reasons for my continued involvement in the Bloggernacle and Outer Blogness.) Faith doesn’t matter.

…yet, I can’t help but feel that this is an instance where that one expression applies. How does it go? If you love something, let it go.

I don’t want to sound all wishy-washy like some disaffected freethinking types sound, but to be completely serious about agency and choice, the consequences can’t be so manufactured. Maybe it’s scary to have a kid drop away from the church; maybe you don’t know what she’ll do while she’s fallen away. But if you love her or you love the church (or both!), then let it go. Because the alternative of cultivating this environment where your kids are aware that they better go to church or else (even if that “or else” is simply the fact that you’ll be in a worse mood for a while) is more likely to cultivate an attitude that they are only going because good Mormons should, or because they want to maintain social capital with mom/dad/the bishop/God/whomever. And then what’ll happen when mom and dad are gone?

How about a different scripture?

Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it.

Proverbs 22:6

Ugh, I know there will be critiques of this argument. I mean, here more than ever the complaint that kids don’t know what’s good for them becomes relevant. (Should we just let kids not go to school so that we don’t risk having them hate education in general?) Maybe forcing people to do annoying things won’t give them a lifelong aversion to it. Maybe one day it’ll click without them having to disaffect.

or maybe everything is all according to plan? Maybe making kids so annoyed with church/school/whatever that they disaffect is entirely the point, because after their disaffection (if they were ever meant to have an “after” to their disaffection), they will not cease from exploration, and the end of all their exploring will be to arrive where they started and know the place for the first time.

So, I guess I’m still doing it wrong this time. But at least it doesn’t bore the hell out of me, or infuriate me. Ultimately, I may still be choosing death and captivity, but at least it won’t be church that’ll be making me miserable.


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