One of my all-time favorite movies is Ordinary People. In it, there’s a scene in which Conrad, a teenager who was hospitalized for several months after attempting suicide and is now trying to re-adjust to life, gets together with one of his friends from the hospital. He asks her, do you ever miss it? When she asks why, he responds, because no one ever hid anything there. It’s a line that’s very much resonated with me over the years.
I frequently hear the saying that churches are not supposed to be museums for saints, but rather hospitals for sinners—though in practice, they all too often fall short of this ideal. This is an especially challenging ideal, I suspect, for religious traditions which emphasize the connection between happiness/prosperity and righteousness. To admit to difficulties in such a context is to potentially open yourself up to a judgmental examination of what you are doing wrong. And Mormonism fits all too well into this paradigm. We are good at many things, especially when it comes to temporal welfare, but I think we struggle when it comes to creating safe spaces where people talk honestly about their lives. And while I doubt that anyone would accuse us of building churches that look like museums, we do in fact call ourselves saints—and we do at times go to church and act like we are on display.
I’ve been in a lot of support groups over the years, related to various issues. Some were helpful, and some were not. The helpful ones, unsurprisingly, managed to create an environment where people felt safe to be vulnerable, to be honest. There’s something liberating, I’ve found, about being in a place based on the explicit premise that something in your life is going wrong, that you need help. It also allows for a suspension of some social taboos, in terms of it being okay to ask people direct questions about what’s really going on in their lives. And at their best, such groups are a place where people will actually listen to what you say, without leaping to judgment or advice. There’s a lot of power in those kinds of communities. I’ve never done 12-step groups, but it doesn’t surprise me when people tell me that they’ve felt a spiritual strength there that can be hard to find in more traditional religious settings.
I hear this concern, that people feel like they have to be fake at church, quite often—it’s something I’ve raised myself more than once. And I wonder what we could do differently. In noting the dynamics of church discussion, I think one unfortunately reality is that it often only takes one person to shut down any genuine conversation—one person to whip out GA quotes or scriptures like a weapon, and thereby guarantee that no one else will admit to having any problems at all. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that just one person taking a risk and being honest can also make a real difference in the environment.
I’m not saying that the church should go overboard in buying into the therapeutic culture of America, and I’m certainly not advocating that it be a giant group therapy session. But I do wonder how it would feel to see church as a hospital for sinners, a place where you might show up battered and bruised, and that would be okay—even expected, because that’s part of the human condition. While I appreciate the optimistic view of human nature and potential found in LDS teachings, I think we we need to hold this in tension with the realities of living in a fallen world, one which affects us both internally and externally.
We usually equate going to church with righteousness. But what if we also saw it as a sign of spiritual sickness—or, perhaps more accurately, a recognition of spiritual sickness, a recognition of the reality that in the end, we can’t heal ourselves? What if that model, as opposed to, “here I am at church so I’d better do my best to appear virtuous,” were the premise of our religious community?