I was raised in a tiny town. It seemed to me that everyone was either Nazarene, Catholic, or Mormon. Growing up I never heard anyone vocally identify as a democrat. There was one African-American in my school, otherwise everyone was either Latino or White. I didn’t personally interact with a gay person until I was out of college. I tell you these things to try convey the lack of diversity in my hometown community because it played a pivotal role in shaping the person I was throughout my early and mid twenties. During my freshman year my roommates teased me for taking a Women’s Studies course at BYU. They said I was going to turn into a “dirty feminist” and I fought back not because I wanted to defend Feminism, but because I too thought that feminists hated men while secretly wanting to be like them in every way. I knew so little and I was wrong about so many things. Mormonism wasn’t just one hour of church on Sunday, it was my entire lifestyle and culture for a quarter century. I don’t blame my past for my actions, but I am the person I am today because of my personal history.
This journey that I’m about to describe was initiated, in large part, by my blogging. Between the posts on Mormonism that I used to write each week and the questions that were sent my way via Formspring, there were so many aspects of Mormonism that I had never considered. Ever the stalwart missionary, I set out to find the answers for my readers so they could understand why joining the LDS Church would be the best possible thing that every single person out there could do. That’s what Sunday School lesson after youth devotional night after annual temple trip had taught me to do. I relied pretty heavily on the FAIR LDS Wiki, an apologetic resource with the tagline “Defending Mormonism.” I liked that this was a place full of people taking a look at difficult issues and trying to make sense of them from a faithful perspective. Over time I was exposed to things I didn’t know about, things that felt a bit jarring, but the apologists at FAIR were always there to help me make it all fit together within my belief system.
Slowly I started to feel like it was okay to learn about Mormonism from sources other than those approved by the leadership of the Church. I know this limitation isn’t what every LDS person believes regarding reading and studying about Mormonism, but it was the framework that I personally was operating in and I think this is a framework that is encouraged by the current LDS curriculum. At one point in my life I limited my information to very specific sources because that is what felt safe, and I was terrified that something written or shared with ill-intentions would deceive me and make me question my beliefs.
My online missionary efforts pushed me out of the circle I had drawn for myself. For the first time in my life, I was asking questions that I had never dared to even think before. Mormonism encourages congregants to build their faith upon their own testimonies, but also encourages members to “shelve” things that are difficult to answer. To quote myself from just over a year ago, “I have several boxes on a shelf in my mind, and I want to sort all the issues out . A box for the things I know, a box for the things I’m puzzling through, a box of ideas that others accept which I’ve rejected, and a box for things I will never understand no matter how I search, ponder, and pray. This idea of a “box on the shelf” is not a concept of my own invention, it’s a pretty common idea passed around within Mormonism. We are encouraged to build up our faith like a house, laying the bricks that form the foundation, and then moving on to the pillars and windows and shelves, fortifying along the way. If we don’t have a strong testimonyof something, we put that idea in a box on the shelf and come back to it again later.” As I started to seek out answers to questions I had previously shelved I realized I wasn’t finding answers that worked for me. Pieces of information that used to fit perfectly together like a puzzle were jutting out uncomfortably. I was no longer sure. This was extremely upsetting because feeling sure was a critical part of my faith. Once a month members of the congregations I belonged to would get up and talk about not just what they believed, but what they knew. I would get up a few times a year and say “I know God lives. I know we have a loving Prophet. I know the Book of Mormon is a literal story of a people who lived in America. I know the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is True.”
The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable. – Arundhati Roy
I used to know things, and then I had come to un-know them.
Acknowledging the unraveling of my faith was something I was not ready to do yet, and so I doubled down. I thought unshakable faith was attainable to me if I met certain standards. I maintained a public scripture blog to motivate me to read the Word of God more frequently for longer periods of time. I prayed morning and night, trying out different approaches that would help my prayers become more in-depth and meaningful. I committed to attend the temple more and sent out emails asking for women in my ward who would be interested in doing babysitting swaps. I was going to be as perfect as possible in all areas so that God would speak to me directly and answer my questions. This was the formula leaders had assured me would be the solution to my problems. But the answers didn’t ever come from the scriptures or the temple. Reading the Old Testament confused me and sometimes left me with a revolted feeling. The God of the Old Testament is mean. What the hell happened in the Heavens between Malachi and Matthew? I would pray and pray in the temple but there was no clarity of thought.
Occam’s Razor: The simplest explanation is usually the right one.
I wasn’t getting answers from the sources that the LDS Church told me to turn to (scriptures, prayer, temple), so I dove deeper into apologetics. I started reading historical documents. I devoured “The Rise of Modern Mormonism.” I started listening to podcasts like Mormon Matters, Mormon Stories, and Daughters of Mormonism on 2x speed because I couldn’t take all the information in fast enough. I rejoiced at the thought that there were other people like me out there. Unsatisfied with the answers that previously satisfied them. Overwhelmed by questions and unable to find answers from the usual sources.
Mormon Matters did a podcast on something called Fowler’s Stages of Faith. In his book, Fowler describes his theories regarding developmental processes related to faith. The processes are broken up into stages, and you can find an excellent summary of each stage here. The Stages concept spoke to me because the stages are intended to represent different states of being–a way to conceptualize where you are at any given moment. They are not organized in a pyramid as if certain stages are superior to others. As I reflected on my recent dive into my faith I discovered I had reached Stage 4 without knowing it. For me Stage 4 manifest as a faith crisis. It meant not knowing what I believed anymore. It meant asking lots of questions and not knowing if I’d ever find answers. While I never want to go back to where I once was, I sometimes miss the comfort and certainty that I experienced in Stage 3. I realized that for me the only tenable approach to belief would be to keep reaching forward and searching for truth from all credible sources.
All of this is what led me to write my Awakening posts. My thinking had changed and I wanted to be understood in my new place. I have to remind myself on a daily basis that understanding and acceptance won’t come from everyone no matter how patiently or clearly I explain my position. That’s okay. I can be at peace even if I am not widely understood or accepted.
The Hyde Park ward in Chicago was the best possible place to experience all of this. I found a group of friends just like me, asking the same questions and struggling with the answers they found. Or more often than not, the lack of answers. We would get together and talk for hours. They shared heartbreaking personal stories. They endured estrangement from their families in a variety of ways. They were the kind of friends you find once in your life and I love them dearly for the myriad of ways they supported me and made me a better person. The Hyde Park ward in Chicago is the greatest ward in the world. I will always sing the praises of that congregation and the people in it.
Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety. And at such a moment, unable to see and not daring to imagine what the future will now bring forth, one clings to what one knew, or dreamed that one possessed. Yet, it is only when a man is able … to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free for higher dreams, for greater privileges. – James Baldwin
I wish I had recorded in detail how it happened because if you asked me to talk about my problems with the LDS faith (absent the many issues I have with church culture, which are a separate thing entirely) I wouldn’t even know where to start. I had been raised to think that my beliefs were the “Capital T” Truth, but so many facts I uncovered undermined my previous views and my confidence in them. How the Book of Mormon was translated. The extent of Joseph Smith’s polygamy. The source material for the Book of Abraham. The origin of the Priesthood Ban that prevented Blacks from holding the priesthood. How women were phased out of offering Priesthood Blessings. I’m not sure how to or if I can talk about these issues in a public way because I know doing so could be considered offensive and antagonistic by some of my LDS friends and family members. This blog is not just a place to share my ideas, it’s become a way to communicate with friends and family and their participation means a lot to me. I love when those I’m close to mention things they have read on my blog, because I see their participation as a way of communicating that they care about me. If they feel like this space is going to become one where they are confronted with information they want to avoid, I worry they will eschew content produced by me altogether. Some who have left Mormonism have even experienced friends and family who disown them. I don’t want to be seen as some sort of Pied Piper, attempting to lead away any and all that come within the sound of my voice. I am trying to straddle a fine line with this post, communicating why I have left without explicitly detailing the deeper issues that are so troubling for me. I do this out of respect and love for my family and friends, and I hope that is conveyed properly here.
What I can tell you is that the temple is no longer the respite that it was. It has become a reminder of many of the things that leave me feeling frustrated and unhappy about the LDS Church. An LDS leader once said that each time he attends the temple he learns something new. I was having the opposite experience, each time I attended I felt more confused and didn’t have anyone to turn to. Why was I spending so much time reading the same scriptures over and over when there was so much to learn about the world from a variety of sources? Why had I listened to messages telling me that my greatest role and primary purpose was to have children? I’m no genius but I’m so much more than my ovaries. Church services became frustrating. Why do we spend so much time and effort on perfecting prayer, obsessing over “modest” dress, and looking up the names of the deceased and so little time discussing tolerance, poverty, disease, ignorance, malice, racism, and sexism? Church services became something I endured, trying my best to ignore comments from my fellow congregants such as “I think one great sin of our day is having too much knowledge.” WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN???
Mormonism is no longer a refuge for me. It’s a minefield.
A commonly held belief among many Mormons is that people leave the church because they were offended, because they wanted to do things forbidden by the church, because they are lazy, or because they read anti-Mormon literature and were led away by false information. None of those things apply to me. My break from Mormonism means I have the opportunity to make different choices without the guilt that was previously associated with them and this is going to affect what I wear, how I spend my time on Sundays, or what I drink with dinner. I realize that this will be an opportunity for some to write me off as someone who wasn’t righteous enough and gave in to the natural man. I have accepted that this may be something some people may believe about me no matter what I say in my own defense. Living authentically and openly is more important to me than avoiding any malicious or untrue statements that might be made about me because of choices made about my lifestyle.
I do not want to imply that the way I have done things is superior to other approaches. For some, asking the questions I have asked and reading the things I have read isn’t the right thing. There are also those who have asked the same questions and done the same reading and arrived at very different conclusions (Richard Bushman is an excellent example of this). Their personal approach to Mormonism makes them really, really, ridiculously happy. You know the laughing families in the Mormon TV commercials? For some people, that’s a real thing made possible by their LDS belief system. They have personally found answers to questions that make life difficult, and they are better off because of their membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
So now you know. I am no longer the person I used to be. I’ve wanted to talk about this for a long time, but the way Mormonism is set up my faith is not mine exclusively. I am part of a chain, and being the broken link is a devastating thing for my parents. I know they spend a lot of time praying about me and my children. Sitting them down and telling them I no longer believed was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, but I don’t regret it. Just like I don’t think I will regret this blog post. For me, authenticity is paramount, and for the last year-and-a-half I have struggled with a desire to preserve my relationship with my family while simultaneously living what I view as an authentic lifestyle. I know my parents and family are good, kind, loving people though, and I believe we can find a way to make our relationship work with this new version of Jenna.
So what do I believe? An atheist is someone who actively believes that there is no deity. That is not me. I like Wikipedia’a definition of Pragmatic Agnosticism: The view that there is no proof of either the existence or nonexistence of any deity, but since any deity that may exist appears unconcerned for the universe or the welfare of its inhabitants, the question is largely academic. I don’t know if God exists. My best efforts to get answers have gone unheeded. And so I’m going to take all of the energy I used to devote to worrying about the Divine, and do my best to funnel it toward worrying about the people I can physically see and affect through my actions in the here and now.
One of the best parts about where I am now is that I feel like I hold a new power over my own destiny, over my own thoughts, views, and opinions. Before if you were to ask me, “How do you feel about the death penalty?” I would turn to the words of the LDS Church leaders and parrot back what they said. What were my opinions on birth control or the role of women or marriage equality? Before 2012 my thoughts were a duplication of the words offered by men (always men). I had believed that the only way to be happy was to be baptized at 8, to visit the temple at 12, to marry a man with the priesthood in the temple. Check, check, check. I heard leaders say “Children are one of the greatest blessings in life, and their birth into loving and nurturing families is central to God’s purposes for humanity. Those who are physically able have the blessing, joy, and obligation to bear children and to raise a family. This blessing should not be postponed for selfish reasons.” And so I started having children right away, because it seemed like the only sure-fire way to know that I wasn’t delaying for selfish reasons was to do my best not to delay at all. I put no thought into having a career, because I assumed I would not have one. My role, as defined for me by the LDS Church, was to nurture our children. My husband would take care of providing for our family. While no one was physically forcing me to make any of the choices that I did, it has been a great relief to distance myself from any strong social and emotional forces that emphasize narrow prescriptions for the way one must live in order to find happiness. I can’t go back and undo any of the choices I’ve made (and when it comes to my husband and children I have absolutely no desire to do so), but I have the freedom and responsibility to figure things out entirely on my own from now on. I can research issues and form opinions on them. Being true to myself is crucial to my emotional well-being, and it feels wonderful to be approaching the world on my own terms.
The thing I am most grateful for? A strong marriage. I am in a partnership with a man I respect, love, and admire more than anyone, and anything, else. This post is my story, not his. But in all of this he stands by my side. We both know how lucky we are to have that after going through something like this.
This doesn’t mean I will never be an active Mormon again. Mormonism is my tribe, and it will always be a part of who I am. Faith is a journey, and certainly not a linear one. What I’m typing up in 2013 is where I am now. I can’t even begin to predict where I will be physically, emotionally, or spiritually in 2023 because in 2003 I never would have predicted that I would be writing this. An enormous weight that followed me around as I agonized over these questions has been lifted. I am no longer guilt-ridden. I am happier than I’ve ever been. I am not an envelope opener.
God appeared to me when I was very young.
He whispered to me through the mouths of dumpy woman in straw like wigs and sang to me, together with shuckeling men in black hats, and long beards.
God came to me, in the form of my community – a cross-word puzzle of streets where everyone was somehow connected because we all claimed to have a piece of God inside ourselves. I listened to the trees boast this claim, listened to the ants tell me how the leaves fall to the ground to protect their children, and I listened as my teachers looked me the eye and said:
“Chelek Elokie Mimaal Mamesh, you are a literal piece of God above!”
I asked, “How did it get there?”
They said, “He blew it into you, through your nostrils”
I asked, “Is that why Jews have such big noses?”
I still don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know, that it takes a community to keep a child in line, to infuse a love of learning – it take a community to raise a child, and it takes the same community to ruin another but I don’t know anything good that doesn’t cause harm. Because God made this world like my mother makes soup. With too many vegetables – and he sprinkles in salt like my brother, too much. But you can’t take out the extra salt without throwing the soup away too, and my community liked things salty.
In elementary school the nine year old girls would wear men’s style uniform shirts because the woman styles showed off too much of their underdeveloped bodies and Sex-ed wasn’t taught. Boys were only told masturbation is a sin and the girls think that God magically places babies in their bellies after marriage and don’t know what a period is. Until they get theirs, and think they’re dying. When I was young they said “Tova! Respect your body, your body is a precious gem!” So for the high school play they duct taped our chests so our breasts wouldn’t bounce around on stage, I wondered “Is this what God wants?” I pictured him in heaven making cookie cutters, and I saw that my ideas were too big to fit inside.
When I told my teachers I wanted to go to college, they told me that college is wrong and the principal said it’s unnecessary, there are too many outside influences. So I argued with the Rabbi, I said “What if I don’t JUST want to have nine children?”
The Rabbi stroked his long beard and said, “Would you have an envelope opener do anything else, other than open envelopes?”
YES. I would use my envelope opener to open up the packaged potential inside of me and I would use my envelope opener to file my nails and put on my shoes so the backs don’t bend. I would engage in pirate sword fights with my envelope opener, and spread butter on bread.
I would take my envelope opener, thrust it in the ground and draw a circle around it to make a sundial to tell the time, and I would see – that I’ve spent way too long, flattening my hair, so it would fit into God’s cookie cutters.
So I left. I left the crossword-puzzle of streets that I could no longer figure out the answers too, and when I left, I left my envelope opener there too with a note for God. It said, “Hey God? There are other ways to shape cookies.”