Testimony of the Absurd

Originally published in July 2014 with the incipit, “An open letter and final witness to my fellow Saints,” as a way to announce my permanent disaffection from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Reproduced here with minor edits.

“Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable.” — Albert Camus

In my 15th year, upon preparations for my confirmation, and having been forced to confront my inner denial of the Roman Catholic faith of my mothers, I began to grow intensely interested in the differing philosophies and spiritualities of the world. By intellect alone I knew that it was only right that I search the worldviews of history’s brightest in order that I might find where the truth, if there be any, was found. Simultaneous to this almost entirely academic search, I was battling in the war that adolescent young men for centuries before me have battled, that of love and the loss of love. Few feelings can appear to be so dramatic to a maturing young man as the pain of passing romance.

These battles lasted until I had found that I had lost, and suddenly I was forced to stare absurdity in the face.  Love, the thing that filled my first very human yearning for truth and goodness, had left me.  How could I ever live in a world so void of what I had previously deemed the wealth of life itself?  Love would come again, I convinced myself, but the turbulent nature of relationships could never be the answer to life’s questions.  During the following months I wrestled with the various actions that I could possibly take. There are two conceivable responses man has previously been forced to choose from, according to the existentialists, when they are faced with this devastating recognition of absurdity. To use Camus’ own terminology, there is as a first option physical suicide. Secondly, there is philosophical suicide. In choosing the first, one decides that if life appears meaningless, then one should through his life away, and in the second that one should throw the philosophy that led him there away. I considered the first and failed, and then considered the second.

I remember the night that I read from the Book of Mormon, in the book of 3 Nephi, when it is described how Jesus Christ allegedly appeared, in resurrected form, to the ancient inhabitants of America. Like me, the people were in pain, and losing hope in any meaning in life, lost and empty in a sea of darkness where not even the spark of fire could bring light. Tears surely soaked their faces, as tears were also soaking mine that night, I thought. But in the midst of darkness and confusion a voice from Heaven spoke comfort, and the angelic figure of Jesus himself descended and walked among the people. He embraced them, taught them, and healed them. Light returned. And in an instant, I decided to accept the words I read as truth and to face the hope of a messiah in order to spite my fear. My first testimony was born.

Some weeks later, in February of 2008, I was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The story that Mormonism presented to me was an appealing one. It answered all of my questions, gave me a hope that felt firm and more reliable than the rush of romantic love, and it offered a purpose for me that could last into the eternities. The people were loving and kind, though at times far more conservative than I was. Still, I loved them all like I would the members of my own family and in spite of the closed mindedness that I at times discovered within Mormonism, I also discovered beautiful circles within the Church that I felt perfectly represented what my Mormonism looked like. Most notable of these circles was the Mormon Stories Podcast community, started by a hero of mine, John Dehlin, writer, interviewer, and activist for the unorthodox. Here were the people that embraced the Church with all of its warts, but still chose to love it, and to find meaning, and purpose, and beauty in its teachings. Not all of them remained members, but all of them remained free. I found a home, and I was happy.

About a year and half after my baptism, in August of 2009, I served a mission for the Church in Oakland, California. It was there that an entirely new chapter in my spiritual life would begin. I had many beautiful experiences on my mission, ministering to the people of the San Francisco Bay Area and serving under a truly honorable man, President David G. Wade. I made friends and learned lessons I hope to keep my whole life. However, filled with religious fervor, I began to dig deeply into the depths of the teachings of Joseph Smith and other early Church leaders. For many the controversial teachings and history that are found in these annals of Mormondom are problematic, but never for me; I had always been aware and very comfortable with all of them from the beginning. There were, however, certain teachings regarding temple ordinances that I chose to take literally, and to follow in a way which appeared heretical to the Church, though I never had any other desire but to seek a deeper relationship with God. When a fellow missionary and I were discovered we were both nearly excommunicated. Our case was brought before the Council of the Twelve, however, and we were pardoned. We were even allowed to complete our missions. I spent the remaining eight months of my mission changed, docile, a corrected Saint. I decided to remain quiet, obedient, and orthodox until my release date, so that I could wait to return home before I could retrospectively assess what had happened.

Shortly after my homecoming I realized that I no longer felt comfortable in the Church, so I stopped attending meetings, and chose instead to attend a non-denominational church near my home. It lasted only a few months but the most significant benefit of my temporary exodus was that this time gave me the ability of hindsight in studying the implications that my mission experiences had on my ability to exercise faith. I had put faith in a worldview and a philosophy that could not be proven. This is the purpose of faith, to act as if you know what is unknowable. However, to be put through such severe emotional and spiritual pain over a differing of interpretations regarding the unknown destroyed the virtue that I felt existed in faith. When it came down to it, weren’t we all equally clueless? I was beginning to realize that Mormonism wasn’t the problem.  Blind obedience and acceptance of authority was the problem, and Mormonism only created an environment where I could observe that. Before long my new church was beginning to exhibit the same characteristics as well. It was only a few months of analyzing these ideas before I decided to return to Mormonism as a quiet yet admittedly heretical, uncorrelated, questioning seeker of meaning and truth.

It was at this stage in my life that I began to reconsider what truth was, and if it even existed. If I was going to be a committed member of the LDS Church, then does that mean that it has to be true? If it isn’t entirely true, then is it possible that only some of it is true? What is the difference between using my emotions to convince myself into a testimony of spiritual principles and God speaking to me through my emotions to teach me spiritual truths? And if the feelings which I initially thought were from God, which testified to me of the existence of God and the truthfulness of the Church’s teachings, are not, in fact, from God, then what evidence do I have that God even exists? These were questions that John Dehlin and his people at Mormon Stories were asking and actively helping me with answering, both personally and through their published podcasts, essays, and testimonials. Knowing that there were other people on my journey, some who were making it work, and some that were finding happiness outside of the Church, helped me to not feel alone, and provided me with a map of where I might be headed.

I have come to understand that this unpacking process that was going on in my mind is one that is foreign to many. And that is because so many of us never consider that the worldview that we have always had may not be accurate or “true” at all. As a result, we take the pain these worldviews cause us as a given. This is something I had learned to struggle with since youth. The battles I became engaged in, however, were far more complicated than the ones of my youth. They were mingled not only with my intellect and emotions, but also with more than 180 years of strong tradition, doctrinal development, and the careful construction of a comprehensive culture. I was losing so much of Mormonism because I was realizing that I never, no matter how much I claimed to, “knew” that any of it was true. Faith is a choice, I was coming to understand, and its consequences were my own to reckon with. Such a reckoning is the true meaning of a testimony.

Attending Southern Virginia University, a predominantly LDS school, was not just a last ditch effort to reclaim Mormonism as my own while on its soil, but it was also religion’s last chance to convince me that this fight for Zion was worth it.  I didn’t know it then, but I was trying to find something inside of me that wasn’t real, that was always only a delusion which was easy to live in only as long as there was nothing there to test it. As hard as I tried, I could not find within me a faith that could align with the expectations of my religion. I got engaged to a Mormon girl, but her family proved enormously intolerant. I attended early morning Institute of Religion classes, but found that it required severe lapses in my intellectual integrity. Even though I was queer, I never came out and never broke the honor code, but rumors circulated regardless and eventually brought me to the Dean’s office to defend myself. More and more it was being made clear to me how faith in a system, especially a belief in archaic morals and values, can spurn fear of the unknown, as if truth were always a threat to itself.  Somewhere along this part of the timeline, President W. Todd Brotherson, of the Buena Vista, Virginia Young Single Adult Stake, extended to me a calling to serve in the Elders Quorum Presidency of my ward. It was then, in a kind of absurd awakening, that I realized that simply not attending church was not enough anymore. I was not a Saint who lost his way, but one who felt called to leave, just as I had felt called to join. I was no longer comfortable with hiding, and I would no longer keep quiet and lie to others about my standing in the Church. Perhaps it had to be on a Latter-day Saint campus, in the company of the Lord’s people, that I  could realize through active experience that I could only be happy if I left the mountains of Ephraim and forsook the clouds for the grassy plains where the earth could be seen around me.

This conclusion, however, had only ruled out my long experiment with philosophical suicide, the imposition of self-proclaimed “Truth” in order to replace the reality of an absurd universe. This, of course, had led me back to my initial dilemma, only to unveil that both suicides available to me were irrational. But in his work, “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus asks whether or not the recognition of the absurd requires the suicide of either our bodies or our minds? “No.” says Camus, denying both options, “It requires revolt.”There are no clear answers concerning the existence of inherent meaning, and thus there is no reason to assume that there exists any inherent meaning that we can begin to approach. And yet it is out of fear of meaninglessness that we cling to hope, a stubborn value we would do well to rid ourselves of, in the same way that we all must grow out of childhood to learn that the magic tricks performed on stage were all trick and no magic. It is only when we cleanse ourselves of the hope for more that we can see that we are able to choose the meaning we wish to have, create our own religions of relative truth, and find value in what we like, while never accepting there to be any objective truth available to us in our choices. This is what Camus means by revolt against absurdity.  We are none of us sheep and all of us artists.

I have since left Southern Virginia University, to the gratitude of its administration, and no longer intend on returning to the Church. I not only deny Mormon doctrine, but all religious dogma together as being unprofitable for me, though I respect the value it creates in the lives of so many of the readers of this letter. I will not be adopting any other religion, though I find spirituality all around me. I deny the very existence of inherent purpose or divinity in the world and all of the implications of such ideas  This is not a decision that has been made lightly, and it has been something that I have been very sure of for a long while.  It is only due to the the most recent actions taken by the Church to bring John Dehlin, Kate Kelly, and other public doubters before disciplinary councils that I found it to be a more appropriate time than ever to “come out of the post-Mormon closet”, and to announce my utter lack of faith and hope by publicly voicing my complete disavowal of the Church and all of its doctrine, commandments, and practices.  It is with a heavy heart that I not only abandon faith in any god but, more heartbreaking, that I also abandon all faith in an institution that I have loved and once found pride in. But do make no mistake! My love for the Mormon people, for all of my brothers and sisters, will never leave me.

This will come as a shock to some, and to others it will not. This may even be painful for some of you to process, and for that I am sorry. However, regardless of how you feel, I ask only for mutual love and understanding for my choices. I’d like to believe that somewhere deep inside of me I will hold on to a remainder of Mormonism, and keep it forever as a piece of my identity. I no longer seek spirituality in its meetinghouses, but I do take strength from a tribe that has for generations striven for beauty, in rebellion against a world with no hope to offer, a beauty I hope to create through my own revolt against absurdity, my own spiritual craft. For those who will continue to find value in the Church, I plead that you stay strong, and continue to live in the beauty you have found. We are all on the same journey, and all wrestle with the same demon, the inevitable ticking clock of mortality, by seeking to create something that will last beyond our years. To quote an old hero that continues to remain so, I ask with all sincerity, “Shall we not go on in so great a cause?”

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