Should I stay or should I go now?
Should I stay or should I go now?
If I go there will be trouble
An’ if I stay it will be double
So come on and let me know
Ah, The Clash. So neatly summarizing the dilemma facing the newly disaffected Mormon. The question of whether to stay connected to a church in whose teachings one no longer believes, or to leave and venture forth into the "lone and dreary wilderness" that so many former Mormons experience.
In thinking about this question off and on for the last 18 months or so, I have developed an analytical framework that is helping me get closer to a decision, a framework I hope may be helpful to the (legions of) readers of Equality Time. In short, I can think of two main reasons to be an active member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The first reason to be an active participant in the LDS Church is if you really believe the Church's foundational truth claims. The "foundational truth claims are these: (1) God and Jesus appeared to Joseph Smith "in a small grove of trees not far from his home"; (2) Joseph Smith, by the "gift and power of God" translated the Book of Mormon from actual gold plates delivered by a resurrected ancient American; (3) John the Baptist, Peter, James, John, and other ancient prophets, now resurrected, appeared to Joseph Smith, and conferred on him the exclusive priesthood keys and authority making Joseph and his followers the only persons on earth authorized by God to perform ordinances necessary for salvation and to organize the Lord's "only true and living church upon the earth"; (4) the Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the only true continuation of or successor to the church organized by Joseph Smith; (5) the most senior apostle of this Church (at the moment Gordon B. Hinckley) is the Prophet, Seer, and Revelator and the only man on earth actively holding all the priesthood keys and the only person on earth entitled to receive revelation from God for the entire church and, indeed, the whole world. I realize there are many other "truth claims" of the LDS Church (for example, the claim that Jesus Christ lived a perfect, sinless life, offered himself up as a vicarious sacrifice for the sins of the world in the Garden of Gethsemane and the Cross of Calvary, was resurrected, and ascended bodily to heaven to sit enthroned at the right hand of God in "yonder heavens") but these five listed I think can fairly uncontroversially be considered the "foundational" ones. Let's call them the "Five Fundamentals."
If you believe (or can say you "know" they are true, even) these five truth claims, then I can think of few reasons not to be an active member of the LDS Church. A person who accepts the foundational truth claims may find much in the Church to criticize; he or she may even agree with any number of the issues I have identified in my 96 Theses. But such a person could not leave the Church without suffering tremendous guilt and fear and personal consternation. Let's take a look at some examples. Suppose you are a true believer. You are bored with church, hate your calling, the Bishop has been a total jerk to you, you disagree with the Church's involvement in the anti-gay-marriage political initiatives, and you are tired of hearing platitudes and cliches at General Conference. As a true believer, your own personal dissatisfaction with the three-hour block or the correlated lesson manuals does not overpower your testimony that "the church is true." After all, to a true believer, one's eternal salvation depends on one's activity in the Church (see D&C 76--being "valiant" and all that). Belief in the Five Fundamentals is an effective shield to any reason to question continuing activity and membership in the Church. Any personal dissatisfaction with the Church you might feel as a true believer is explained as a personal failure. The Church is true; membership in it is the only way to experience a "fulness of joy," peace, contentment. If you aren't feeling those things, there is something wrong with you, not the Lord's one and only true Church.
Does a lack of belief in the Five Fundamentals necessarily require an abandonment of activity or membership in the Church? I don't think so. If you no longer believe in the Five Fundamentals, you don't see the LDS Church as controlling the gateway to the only path back to God. You don't see yourself as one of God's chosen ones by virtue of your Church membership. You now see the flaws and weaknesses and problems with the Church not as aberrations from the ideal caused by imperfect people working in a perfect organization but rather as characteristics that define the organization. You see the Church as a mixture of good and bad, a human organization with both worthy and unsavory attributes. It's not that "the Church is true but some people aren't true to the Church," it's that the Church is a mixture of truth and error, right and wrong, inspiration and desperation, fear and faith, light and darkness. Just like other human institutions, religious or otherwise.
For people in this situation, like me, the question of whether to continue activity or membership in the LDS Church becomes much more complicated than for someone who believes in the Five Fundamentals. Now, the question becomes a cost-benefit analysis: for a doubter like me, does membership or activity in the Church confer more benefits than costs? Whereas with a true believer, one can make a universal statement that membership and activity in the Church makes sense, for unbelievers no such universal pronouncement can reasonably be asserted. To the contrary, the question becomes a deeply personal one, informed by the totality of the individual doubter's life circumstances.
Now, membership and activity are optional. I don't think my eternal salvation is hanging in the balance, that if I curtail my activity or leave the Church altogether I am dooming myself to eternal separation from my lived ones and everlasting sorrow and regret. Instead, I now view the Church as just one of many human institutions formed with the intent of helping us better ourselves in the here and now. So, the question of continuing membership and activity becomes a practical one: does the Church confer positive benefits on me and my family that are not available in greater measure elsewhere? What are some of those benefits? A community of caring people; opportunities for serving others; a framework for instructing my children in ethics and values; support for my marriage and family; a place to gather for spiritual expression, meditation, introspection, and reflection.
As I have spent a fair amount of time and space on the negative aspects of the LDS Church, I won't dwell on them in this post. Suffice it to say there are many, and while I have made no final determination yet, I am leaning toward the conclusion that, on balance, the negatives outweigh the positives. But even if, upon tallying up the positives and negatives, the Church on balance were to come out as a net positive, the question to ask is: might there yet be something better elsewhere? The analysis requires not just counting up the positive and negative attributes of the LDS Church. It requires comparing the costs and benefits of staying against the costs and benefits of leaving for something better. And that's where I am right now. I don't believe in any of the Five Fundamentals. I see much good in the LDS Church but am troubled by many aspects of Church history, doctrine, policy, and culture. And I am actively looking to see if I can find a place that possesses the positives without all the negatives (though I understand any such place will have its own set of negatives to be considered in a similar cost-benefit analysis.) I think I may have found it in the Unitarian Universalists, but I am not utterly convinced. Just color me cautiously optimistic on that one and get back to me in a few months.