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Why I Am Still a Mormon

As a fairly reflective and rational person, I often have occasion to examine the important choices I’ve made in my life. Most of them are pretty easy to understand and explain: going to college, marrying the person I did, becoming a librarian, having a few kids—none of these is a choice that would raise anyone’s eyebrows. I know, however, that what I consider the most important choice of my life is one that many find strange, for reasons that I completely understand. Having spent my career in an academic environment, where this particular choice can seem especially questionable, I’ve found that some of my colleagues are mildly incredulous, while others, I sense, are puzzled but politely avoid the issue. Some of the latter are probably fearful of what I’d say if they asked. So I’ve decided to explain it as best I can, in the non-threatening form of a personal essay that no one has to read if they don’t want to.

I’m referring to my choice to remain a Mormon. I say “to remain a Mormon” because there’s no mystery as to why I started out as one. Although I grew up in Massachusetts, I was born into a Mormon family and was raised in the Church. At no time were we ever “inactive” while I was growing up; my family went to church every week and we participated in all the normal church activities. We held weekly family home evenings; my father and I were home teaching companions; I attended early-morning seminary throughout high school. So it’s easy to understand why I was a Mormon kid—really, I had little choice. Mormonism was inculcated into me from my earliest years, and I never understood it as one of several legitimate lifestyle options. Mormonism was the truth, and it was the way life was lived in my home.

I’ve heard it said that you can’t choose your family or your religion, and to some degree I suspect that’s true. However, there have been several points at which I’ve had to make deliberate and conscious choices about my spiritual life—about whether I actually believe, first of all, that there is any such thing as a “spiritual life” at all and, if so, what it really means to pursue it.1

At the moments in my younger life when I needed to decide what I believed and how I should live, the questions I was addressing—though at the time I probably couldn’t have put them into these exact words— were the following:

  1. Is there a God who is real and exists outside of the natural order?
  2. If so, does Mormonism teach accurately about God’s attributes and expectations for us?
  3. If so, do the doctrines, covenants, and practices that comprise Mormonism constitute a set of uniquely true principles and put forward a uniquely true and necessary set of prescriptions for living—or do they only represent one valid set of spiritual options among many?

When I was a child, like most children, I accepted what my parents told me about these issues, because a) my parents seemed to know everything and b) they clearly wanted what was best for me. And like most young adults, I eventually came to question the things they taught me. Not just once, but in an ongoing and recurring pattern throughout my life, one that I think is normal, essentially healthy, and likely to continue indefinitely.

The first time I remember seriously questioning my Mormon beliefs was, ironically enough, when I was in the Missionary Training Center preparing to leave on a two-year proselyting mission for the Church. My concern wasn’t with any particular points of doctrine; I just came to the sudden and sharp realization that although I had gone through my life up to that point operating fairly comfortably on the assumption that God was real and that the Latter-day Saint conception of God was accurate, I had never come to a truly independent conviction that those propositions were true. I had accepted that they were true and had more-or-less willingly (if very imperfectly) structured my life around that acceptance, but as I was preparing to actually spend two full years of my life testifying actively to their truthfulness I came to the belated realization that willing acquiescence to the doctrine probably wasn’t going to be enough to make me an effective missionary.

I should point out, though, that being an effective missionary really wasn’t my primary concern at that point—my concern was about being a missionary at all. I had actually been dreading my mission. If I was honest with myself, I saw it as an interruption, a wall I was going to have to climb over before I could get on with the real business of my life, which was going to school and pursuing my career goals and getting married and raising a family. As it is for all new missionaries, the transition into missionary service was wrenching for me. When I departed for the MTC I left a girlfriend behind whom I missed very much. I found the scriptures boring—not especially baffling or hard to believe, just generally uninteresting. I was not then and am not now an especially sociable person and I cherished having time alone, and knew that a mission would require me to be in someone else’s close presence nearly around the clock. I loved books and was obsessed with music, and knew that as a missionary I’d have to give up most of my favorite music and all of what I most enjoyed reading. But most of all, as an essentially shy person I had no desire whatsoever to knock on strangers’ doors and offer to talk to them about my religion—I knew that in most cases it would be annoying to them, and that few if any would have any interest in hearing what I had to say. I knew that proselyting would be embarrassing and at times humiliating, and that the vast majority of the people I’d encounter would think I was a deluded fool at best and an irritating zealot at worst. My pride and my intellectual vanity made (and still make) the prospect of being seen in either light very painful.

It wasn’t that I felt missionary work was in any way a bad idea; I understood what it was about the gospel that made such work good and necessary, and I knew why I needed to do it, and I was willing. But I expected it to be difficult in particular ways that were especially painful for me, and I was not looking forward to it.

It was in the context of these feelings that I realized I had to have a firmer and more independent knowledge of the truthfulness of the gospel if I were going to go forward and complete my missionary service. Again, at this point my goal wasn’t to make myself a more effective missionary. I was making a binary decision: either continue on that path or go home. To make that decision, I needed to know whether the gospel was true. I knew that if I gained that knowledge, I could do what needed to be done even if it was difficult or embarrassing. But I also knew that without it, I probably couldn’t.

I had felt what I understood to be the influence of the Holy Ghost at various times in my childhood and adolescence, and I think that I already had a fairly good understanding of the difference between emotional and spiritual feelings, so I was pretty well prepared to ask the question that I asked on my knees one evening at bedtime. I must not have been alone in the room, since it housed four of us and we were never left alone. But it seems in my memory as if I were alone when I knelt down and made a very simple and straightforward prayer. It was along these lines: “Heavenly Father, if you are there, and if what I’m about to do is in fact what’s right and required of me, please let me know now. Because I have to know; otherwise I’m going to go home and pick up my life where it left off.”

I received an answer to my prayer. It came promptly, and it came powerfully enough that there was no question in my mind as to its origin or its message. It was clear to me that it originated outside of myself. Although I was not a very spiritually mature person, I had already learned from experience to recognize the difference between the somatic, chemicals-in-the-stomach sensations of emotion and the fundamentally different feelings that came from the Holy Ghost. What I felt was spiritual, and the message was clear: God told me that he was there, that he loved me, and that I should continue on the path on which I had set out.

This is the point at which I fully expect to lose the attention of anyone who is firmly committed to a rationalistic and naturalistic worldview. Someone who has already dismissed the idea of a spiritual realm will read the above and say “You only think you discern the difference between emotional and spiritual feelings. In fact, what you’re experiencing are just different flavors of emotion.” It’s a perfectly reasonable response, and it’s one to which I’ve given a lot of thought. But the more I think about it, the more I bump up against something I really can’t deny: the fact that the feelings that are born within me when discussing matters of an eternal nature are in fact different from the feelings that I have when dealing with anything else—and not subtly different, but radically. They don’t carry with them the baggage or the side effects of physical emotion: rarely do they make me cry; they never leave me with a feeling of catharsis; they never raise my level of physical excitement; I don’t feel them in my stomach, the way I do anxiety or anticipation or desire; and most significantly, they don’t come in response to a wide variety of stimuli. Spiritual feelings come to me only when dealing with spiritual things, and they always somehow push away emotional noise rather than add to it.

Having these feelings and impressions has taught me what I think is a valuable lesson about the nature of evidence. When dealing scientifically with the physical world, evidence only counts if it can be shared and replicated. When dealing with the spiritual world, evidence is generally private and not shareable—and though it may in a certain way be replicated, what is replicated ends up being equally private and personal to the person who experiences it. In other words, my spiritual experiences can’t prove to anyone else the existence of a spiritual world. In the strictest philosophical sense, they can’t really “prove” it to me, either. (I could always find some way, however far-fetched, to explain away my spiritual experiences. Even a direct angelic visitation, like any other experience, could at some point be explained away as a hallucination.) But while they can’t give me proof, they most certainly can give me evidence—private, unshareable evidence, but nevertheless real enough for me to work with in my own life. And this, I’ve come to believe, is the essence of faith: faith isn’t just picking something to believe in and then proceeding with your life on the assumption that it’s true. (It’s not, in other words, just “belief combined with action.”) Faith, I think, consists in gathering spiritual evidence and then putting it to an empirical test. You start with a little bit of belief and you apply it, watching the results; as you do so you learn something about the rightness or wrongness of that belief and are simultaneously equipped to gather more evidence. Over time, you build a structure of faith that becomes stronger as its foundation is deepened and thickened by the accumulation of evidence and experience. This process may not be “scientific,” but it is certainly empirical. It is what I believe the prophet Alma describes in the Book of Mormon.2

What this means, I think, is that faith and reason are inseparable. Faith doesn’t mean belief despite a lack of evidence; faith is a result of the gathering and testing of evidence. Reason is what allows me to recognize the connection between, for example, hearing someone bear testimony of the reality of Christ’s atonement, and feeling a powerful spiritual response to that expression of testimony. Without reason, I wouldn’t see any connection between the expression and the response, and I wouldn’t be able to recognize the unfolding pattern of connections between similar experiences and similar responses throughout my life. But I suspect that few if any of us will ever have experiences that are explicit, powerful, and direct enough to let us suspend faith altogether. The evidence will always be partial—it will always be at least theoretically possible to conjure up an alternative explanation for any particular miraculous experience or internal spiritual prompting. Thus, to me, putting faith into practice means:

  1. Accepting, at least provisionally, that spiritual experiences are what they seem to be;
  2. moving forward on the basis of that acceptance, altering my behavior as appropriate;
  3. seeking out more such experiences;
  4. watching, thinking, and praying about what happens next.

As I try to pursue this course of action, I find that I continue to have just enough of these experiences to keep me going. And again, although this approach requires me to move forward with incomplete evidence, at the same time it seems fundamentally rational to me. My spiritual life is a house of experiential, and partly intellectual, inquiry built on a foundation of trust—trust that the things that powerfully seem spiritual to me really are. This trust keeps being rewarded, usually in subtle and gentle but very often undeniable and sometimes overwhelmingly powerful ways, and always in ways that are very clearly different to me from my experiences with physical emotion. For that reason, I’m able to keep feeling my way forward with a reasonable level of confidence, even though my actual knowledge is partial and in some ways contingent.

When I got up off my knees from that prayer in the MTC, I knew both that I must and that I could carry on and serve a mission. That knowledge didn’t make it any easier, however. My mission was difficult in exactly the ways I thought it would be, and at times the difficulty was excruciating. There were moments when I had to force myself almost physically to do the things that were required. On my second day in the mission field, my companion thought it would be a good idea for us to go to a large urban park and split up—staying in sight of each other, but stopping people and talking to them on our own. After he walked away I had to sit on a park bench and gather my strength. The thought of accosting someone walking by on the path and trying to engage him or her in a discussion about the gospel made me want to run away screaming. But by this point I had confidence in several propositions: God was real and loved me, and God wanted me to be in a park talking to people about the gospel. The gospel was true, and since the gospel was true, it was important enough to be worth annoying people over. So as painful as it would be for me, I knew I needed to do it and I would. And I did. And it was indeed painful, and awkward, and at times embarrassing.

My entire mission was very difficult. I was not as effective as some missionaries, though I was more effective than some others; I was consistently obedient and diligent, and I had some exquisite experiences in parks and in meetinghouses and in small, shabby rooms with people of varying backgrounds who desired, in varying degrees, to come unto Christ. When my companions and I taught doctrine and bore testimony, I felt my soul vibrate in response as the Holy Ghost bore witness to the truthfulness of what we said, and I watched the eyes of those we taught as they felt the same thing. Seeing others, who came to these discussions without the baggage of a lifelong grounding in Mormonism, feel something that was very obviously much the same as what I was feeling deepened my conviction that what we were teaching was real and true and that what I was feeling came from something external to my own mind. In those moments, spiritual evidence truly was shared between us, though not in any way that could be documented, measured, or captured for future examination by others.

When my mission came to an end, I was able to look back on it with joy and satisfaction, despite the flaws in my preparation and some of the rather stupid things that, in retrospect, I could see I had done. I felt (and still feel) confident that my sacrifice was accepted, and, much more importantly, that my missionary service was a life-changing blessing to some people, and perhaps to many others of whom I’m not aware.

Nothing in my life has led me to have confidence in the concept of “happily ever after.” Completing a mission did not mark the resolution of my spiritual struggle or the culmination of my testimony building. Instead, it laid the bottom layer of a foundation upon which I’ve worked to build ever since. In doing so I’ve had tremendous, even transcendent, spiritual experiences, as well as moments of serious doubt and crisis.

Those experiences have taught me several things. The most important of them, I think, is that a testimony—a conviction of the truthfulness of the restored gospel—is a fragile thing. This is surely as it should be, though it may sound strange to say that. A typical response of the unbeliever to a believer’s expression of faith is to ask “If God exists, and if he wants you to do his will, why does he make it hard to find him and make communication with him so much a matter of intuition and interpretation?” This is a fair question, and it takes its place alongside all the other fair questions about God: if God is both real and good, how can his creation include so much that is evil? Why does God allow so much tragedy and pain, if he actually does love us and want what’s best for us? Why do so many who claim to represent God on earth turn out to be corrupt, craven, and foolish?

One reasonable, though facile, response to all of these questions is that God wants us to grow and that we grow in part by striving after him, by suffering, and by making choices—some of which will be bad and some of which will necessarily impinge on others. But I think there is a deeper answer as well, and it’s implied in the questions themselves. To object to the existence of God on the basis of the difficulty of knowing him or the awfulness of our lot is to imply necessarily that if there were a God such as the one described by Mormon doctrine, our lives and our world would be substantially different. For that implied argument to have any weight, one should be able to answer the question “How would life be different if there were a God?” In other words, how much suffering is allowable before we decide that God can’t exist? How many genocides, tsunamis, terrorist attacks, and earthquakes can take how many lives before we say “This is too much. This reality is incompatible with the existence of a personal and loving God”?

In order to be taken seriously, the answer to this question doesn’t have to be precise, but it should at least have some shape and weight. Does the Holocaust disprove the existence of God? The World Trade Center attack? The Darfur genocide? Suppose that none of those, and nothing close to them in severity and brutality, had ever occurred—would the skeptic be more inclined to believe in God, or would the bar simply be set at a different level? In a world in which the worst-ever human disaster had taken the lives of dozens rather than millions, would we say “This world is kind and gentle enough that I can countenance the proposition of a kind and gentle God in heaven,” or in that circumstance would the smaller-scale tragedies horrify us just as much as the large-scale ones that drive so many away from belief now?

I think this brings us back to the more facile explanation: rationally, I think that even horrific tragedy—for all of the questions and concerns that it can and should raise in the minds of thoughtful believers—can and probably must exist in a God-created world where the primary purpose of life is not comfort, pleasure, long life, or even the avoidance of awful suffering, but rather growth and development through hard experience and the exercise of agency. Sometimes answers are facile because they’re false and easy; sometimes they seem facile because they’re both simple and true. I think this is one of those.

Another thing I have learned is to recognize and respect my own intellectual limitations. One of those limitations is a deep and intractable impatience. I jump to conclusions too quickly, assuming that I’ve gathered all the evidence I need for a decision when in fact I should wait and gather more. I keep having to learn that lesson over and over, a fact that leads me to suspect this to be an ingrained problem of my personality rather than just a bad intellectual habit. Having recognized this tendency, I’ve learned to stay away from anti-Mormon literature. I have at times found myself shaken by something negative or critical I’ve read or heard, only later (sometimes much later) to find out that what I read was unfounded or that there was far more to the story than the critic had reported. No matter how many times I go through that process, I still fail to learn the lesson it should be teaching me.

So now I generally avoid critical literature, though not without some misgivings. I realize that there’s a certain kind of danger in ignoring the critics: growth requires opposition, and to actively cultivate ignorance of opposition is to risk becoming soft and complacent. Nor is it healthy to pretend that there are no legitimate questions about the doctrines of the restored gospel, the foibles of Church leaders, or Church history. There would surely be something fundamentally perverse about a testimony that relies on ignorance of the truth for its strength, and it is absolutely true that Church leaders are fallible and imperfect, that some aspects and elements of Church history are troubling, and that some Latter-day Saint doctrines are unclear and even strange. A real testimony, it seems to me, has to acknowledge and deal with those issues, not pretend they aren’t there. But it matters how one approaches them, and I have learned to do so in a way that takes into account my own particular blend of weaknesses and strengths.

And again, this seems to me a reasonable state of affairs. A loving God who wants us to grow and learn can reasonably be expected, I think, to put his children in situations where their faith will be challenged. (This isn’t to say that the existence of trials and problems proves the existence of God; only that I don’t see how they can disprove it.) A true church, even one led by real revelation under divine authority, can also be expected, I think, to be administered on earth by people who have faults and failings, and who present a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. To those who say (or, more frequently, imply) “Your church can’t be true because Apostle So-and-So demonstrated clear hypocrisy in such-and-such a situation,” I respond, “If the Church were true, how much more perfect would its leaders be?”

I feel as if I’ve used a lot of words to say very few things, but I’ve wanted to be as clear and as thorough as I reasonably can. When people ask me about the nature and content of my faith, I’m often hesitant to say much for fear of looking silly. Putting my response in writing has served two purposes, one more worthy and one less so. The more worthy purpose is to set out the foundation of my belief as clearly as possible. The less worthy purpose is to try to show that I’m not dumb or irrational. One of the things I dislike very much about myself is the vanity that leads me to feel I must do that. As with everything else in my spiritual life, I’m working on it.

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Notes:
1To be clear about what I mean by “spiritual”: As much as I respect the beliefs of others, I have to confess that when people talk about the “spiritual” from a naturalistic perspective, the word seems pretty empty to me. If you believe only in the existence of the natural world—the material, physically perceivable, measurable world—then I don’t see how you can give the word “spiritual” a lot of real meaning without radically redefining it. So when I refer to a “spiritual life” I mean something that has reference to a reality beyond the natural world. Philosophers use the word “supernatural” to refer to that reality. In this sense, the word “supernatural” doesn’t have the woo-woo connotations that it does in casual language. When most people say they believe in God, they’re saying that they believe in a supernatural order—in something real that exists beyond the natural world that we perceive and measure with our bodily senses. When I talk about questioning the existence of a spiritual realm, it’s the supernatural order, that “world beyond,” that I’m talking about. (For now let’s leave aside the implications of Joseph Smith’s teachings about the physical properties of the soul and the inseparability of the temporal and the spiritual.)
2Alma 32:27-43.

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Rick Anderson is Associate Director for Scholarly Resources and Collections in the Marriott Library of the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City. He earned the degrees of Bachelor of Science (1991) and Master of Library and Information Science (1993) from Brigham Young University. Previously, he served as Director of Resource Acquisition (2001-2007) and Electronic Resources and Serials Coordinator (2000-2001) at the University of Nevada, Reno; as Head Acquisitions Librarian at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro (1997-2000); and as bibliographer for Yankee Book Peddler, Inc., based in New Hampshire (1993-1997).

Rick Anderson is the author of Buying and Contracting for Resources and Services: A How-to-Do-It Manual for Librarians (New York: Neal-Schuman, 2004), as well as chapters in Woodward, H., and Estelle, L., eds., Digital Information: Order or Anarchy? (Facet Publishing, 2010) and in Attracting, Educating and Serving Remote Users through the Web: A How-to-Do-It Manual for Librarians (New York: Neal-Schuman, 2002). He has also authored numerous articles and book reviews in such periodicals as Library Journal; Publishers Weekly; EDUCAUSE Review; Information Services & Use; Against the Grain; Serials; College & Research Libraries News; Learned Publishing; Serials Librarian; Internet Reference Services Quarterly; Library Collections, Acquisitions, and Technical Services; Acquisitions Librarian; Serials e-News; Notes (the quarterly journal of the Music Library Association); The Charleston Advisor; Reference and User Services Quarterly; NextSpace: The OCLC Newsletter; Music Reference Services Quarterly; and Portal: Libraries and the Academy.

Rick Anderson was profiled as a “Mover & Shaker—one of the 50 people shaping the future of libraries” in Library Journal (March 2005) and was recently a Research Library Leadership Fellow of the Association of Research Libraries (2009-2010).

Posted October 2010