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Religious people, why do you go to church?

October 13, 2013

The past few weeks in the Mormon world (and especially the fringey internet Mormon world) have experienced thousands going through the anticipation, the experience, and the disappointment of General Conference. I’m too late to add much new to most of the conversations…especially conversations about the assertion of radical self-respect from Ordain Women. Someone wrote on Facebook that General Conference seemed to them to be the weekend when the church undid all the positives that had built up in the prior six months on progressive issues — however limited or narrow those positives might have been.

And in some sense, that seems to be an accurate assessment, at least to me. As a moderator to a fringey internet Mormon facebook group, we want the conversations to be more than anger and disappointment, but at some sense, whatever wounds that existed before are going to keep getting reopened each General Conference. That’s the nature of the situation.

In a private message board that is completely unrelated to Mormonism, someone created a topic asking, “Religious people, why do you go to church?”

The message board in question leans far on the areligious, atheistic side, so the topic did not attract many comments, but I found two comments that were submitted to be quite interesting:

There are a few reasons. Being surrounded by fellow Christians in a positive environment feels good. Not thinking about crap going on in your life feels good. Singing and praising GOD leaves you with a warm feeling inside and gets your mind off of negative things.

That is, at least, my Christian perspective of it.

and

I was extremely involved in the church until about halfway through college. And not just “I went to meet the requirements blah blah blah”… I truly believed I had a beautiful relationship with the maker of the universe. And I gave god all the credit for everything.

A lot of it is BS…but the catharsis of certain things… Most places aren’t like this but I was in an environment where it was safe to be completely vulnerable in your struggles. Support from fellow Christians and the pure empathy and non judging atmosphere was incredible.

I left the Church due to a life long journey of trying to understand the Bible. When I got into college I dug too deep and it left me deeply disturbed by the Americanized version and Biblical attitude.

Which has left me agnostic for the most part.

Fortunately I have found a solid group of people who,yes, are a tad more cynical but care about me just the same. And am treated differently by those very people. So it was an illusion I suppose.

I do still long for the catharsis though…I know it’s an insane and maladaptive by product but that is probably something that I will never not crave.

What I find interesting (especially about the second one) is the sense of this benefit (safety in the presence of other believers) that is conditional (as the commenter has shifted beliefs, he is treated differently.) This raises a seeming contradiction — it was safe to be completely vulnerable in his struggles, but when the struggles were doubts about religious tenets and interpretations, then not so much.

In a way, many of the people who end up frequenting fringe internet Mormon sites fit in that latter category. But I can’t really imagine seeing church (at least not the LDS church) as any sort of place to be completely vulnerable. I see the LDS church as a place to learn how to bear things silently, how to practice the truth of tact over the truth of fact. I definitely don’t attend anymore, but in my mind, if I were to attend again, it would be to try to practice what I preach online — don’t feed the trolls. You don’t have to express your disagreement, especially when you know or should know that expressing it is just going to harm relationships that you may want to keep intact.

You know: to learn patience, long-suffering, and all of those things.

But really…I can’t tell anyone that they should do things just to learn how to be a better punching bag. I can’t tell someone to take attacks and abuse just to develop a thicker skin. And at the end of the day, I’m not even going to attend either.

In his Saturday morning session General Conference talk self-explanatorily named “Come, Join with Us,” President Dieter F. Uchtdorf offers a few reasons for why people would go to the LDS church. He appeals to authority, claiming what is to Mormons the standard claim that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is literally the church authorized to act in Jesus’s name; he mentions the opportunities for doing good to be found within the church; and he notes that the path of discipleship improves lives.

But of President Uchtdorf’s talk, there were one or two things that people really took away from the talk. I won’t address one of them, but I will address the section that Uchtdorf had addressing those who have left, since this section seemed to be a direct request to the sorts of people who frequent fringey internet Mormon Facebook groups, blogs, and web pages. After noting that there are “unanswered questions” regarding things in church history, as well as “times when members or leaders in the Church have simply made mistakes,” he says:

To those who have separated themselves from the Church, I say, my dear friends, there is yet a place for you here.

Come and add your talents, gifts, and energies to ours. We will all become better as a result.

Some might ask, “But what about my doubts?”

It’s natural to have questions—the acorn of honest inquiry has often sprouted and matured into a great oak of understanding. There are few members of the Church who, at one time or another, have not wrestled with serious or sensitive questions. One of the purposes of the Church is to nurture and cultivate the seed of faith—even in the sometimes sandy soil of doubt and uncertainty. Faith is to hope for things which are not seen but which are true.7

Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters—my dear friends—please, first doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith.8 We must never allow doubt to hold us prisoner and keep us from the divine love, peace, and gifts that come through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Some might say, “I just don’t fit in with you people in the Church.

If you could see into our hearts, you would probably find that you fit in better than you suppose. You might be surprised to find that we have yearnings and struggles and hopes similar to yours. Your background or upbringing might seem different from what you perceive in many Latter-day Saints, but that could be a blessing. Brothers and sisters, dear friends, we need your unique talents and perspectives. The diversity of persons and peoples all around the globe is a strength of this Church.

Some might say, “I don’t think I could live up to your standards.

All the more reason to come! The Church is designed to nourish the imperfect, the struggling, and the exhausted. It is filled with people who desire with all their heart to keep the commandments, even if they haven’t mastered them yet.

Some might say, “I know a member of your Church who is a hypocrite. I could never join a church that had someone like him as a member.

If you define hypocrite as someone who fails to live up perfectly to what he or she believes, then we are all hypocrites. None of us is quite as Christlike as we know we should be. But we earnestly desire to overcome our faults and the tendency to sin. With our heart and soul we yearn to become better with the help of the Atonement of Jesus Christ.

If these are your desires, then regardless of your circumstances, your personal history, or the strength of your testimony, there is room for you in this Church. Come, join with us!

If you seek truth, meaning, and a way to transform faith into action; if you are looking for a place of belonging: Come, join with us!

If you have left the faith you once embraced: Come back again. Join with us!

If you are tempted to give up: Stay yet a little longer. There is room for you here.

I plead with all who hear or read these words: Come, join with us. Come heed the call of the gentle Christ. Take up your cross and follow Him.12

Come, join with us! For here you will find what is precious beyond price.

I testify that here you will find the words of eternal life, the promise of blessed redemption, and the pathway to peace and happiness.

I earnestly pray that your own search for truth will impress upon your heart the desire to come and join with us. In the sacred name of Jesus Christ, amen.

(If you are paying careful attention to the above quote, you will note that I actually quoted the line here that has many people on the blogs and Facebook groups upset with this talk. But again, I won’t emphasize it)

Uchtdorf says that “there is yet a place for [us] here.” But even if he might sincerely mean that, I don’t think this is a check he can actually cash.

He talks about those seeking truth, meaning, a way to transform faith into action, a place of belonging. But for those people who have left, or for those people who have had a faith crisis, the truth claims of the LDS church are lacking. The value of the faith is undecided, thus the actions demanded by the Mormon faith are uncompelling. But it’s the other items that are more problematic — the very system of meaning provided for by Mormonism fails to inspire (for many), or at worst it inspires images of horror. The LDS church is not a place of belonging.

For the uncorrelated/middle way/fringe Internet Mormon, to reconcile a desire to fulfill Uchtdorf’s invitation to “come, join with us” with everything else in the church (or even just everything else that was said at conference!), they have to construct things themselves. “Seeking truth” has to mean gathering, organizing, categorizing, defining, and constructing truth out of all the material that can be found; seeking meaning means the same. Faith must be clarified, and the action demanded by faith must be redefined. The place of belonging must be hollowed out individually and not necessarily within the chapel walls.

Then, the question actually becomes — with the words of Mormon scriptures, general authorities, hymns, past leaders, past talks, cosmology, metaphor, or whatever else play a piece in such an idiosyncratic framework, or will it not?

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4 Comments
  1. Seth R. permalink

    It’s hard to understand why Uchtdorf’s talk is all that controversial.

    Christofferson and Oaks I can understand, but… Uchtdorf? Really?

  2. Seth,

    99.9999% of Uchtdorf’s talk is not controversial. And typically seen to be a breath of fresh air (if it’s not being seen as too little, too late).

    It’s just that line about doubting your doubts before you doubt your faith (and the fact that that’s the line that many people have taken away for their Mormon memes) that has people disgruntled.

    and i mean, i’m all for people doubting their doubts and whatnot, and being a little more self-critical, but the quote is just not going to be addressed in a nuanced manner — by pretty much any part of the map.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Please stay Mormon…because we’re right | Irresistible (Dis)Grace
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