I worry about posting this. I know it can be a touchy topic, and I don’t want to be the elephant carelessly stomping around and offending people right and left. So if I’m doing that, then tell me. Really. Then I’ll know what to do better next time.
I’m not a convert. I know, I know, “everyone’s a convert.” But really, I’m not. It’s not that I’ve just stayed in the Church because I was raised in it, and never engaged in any kind of thought for myself, as some are quick to assume. But quite frankly, I have no idea what it would be like to be a member of a different religious tradition, or none at all, and then switch to Mormonism, and I don’t think I should pretend that I really understand the experience. I have plenty of admiration for those who do it—one of my professors in grad school was an expert on conversion, and one of the things he always said is that we ought to have a lot of respect for converts to any faith, because it’s an immensely challenging life transition. But it’s something foreign to me.
And sometimes I wonder how the fact that I was born and raised in the Church shapes my approach to it. I’ve never been much at ease with the “only true Church” claim. And part of the reason is that it just seems an unlikely coincidence that out of the thousands of faiths out there, the one I just happened to be born into was the one and only, God’s chosen people. It seems too much like asserting that the country I was born into just happens to be God’s True Country. Or (as I learned in seminary) that the planet I was born on is the wickedest of all planets, the historical era I was born into is the wickedest of all historical eras, and my generation is the most chosen of all generations. I have a hard time swallowing this stuff.
Another aspect of the Church that I’ve never done very well with is the missionary impulse, the drive to convert the world. I’m terrible at missionary work. There are a number of reasons for that—I worry a lot about the potential of proselytizing to undermine mutually respectful relationships and make everyone suspicious of you. But there’s more. The truth is, I don’t seem to generally believe that people would be better off as Mormons. If you want to convert to Judaism, it’s not unknown for Jews to try to talk you out of it. Why would anyone want to be a Jew, they’ll ask. And I feel a bit the same way. It’s my tradition, so I put up with the craziness, but why on earth would anyone voluntarily sign up for this thing?
In many ways, I feel about the Church the same way I feel about my family. I certainly have that same kind of fierce loyalty. I and my siblings might go on for hours about what’s wrong with the family, but let an outsider say one negative thing and my claws will come out. I fight it and complain about it, and it’s so deeply woven into my identity that I can’t imagine who I would be without it.
I’m sure many are reading this and thinking about how I’m one of those awful lifelong members who completely take the Church for granted, who don’t appreciate what they have. It might be true. But this is the thing. The Church is responsible for some amazingly good things in my life—and for some amazingly painful ones. It’s all there, muddled together. I can’t neatly separate it out, or pretend that my relationship to the Church is less complicated than it is. And just as I don’t think it’s fair for someone who didn’t share my experience growing up in my family to lecture me about lack of appreciation for it, I don’t think it’s fair for someone who hasn’t experienced my life history with the Church to accuse me of ingratitude. I’m not exaggerating when I say that everything good and bad in my life has been to some degree connected with the Church. Depression, connections to God, supportive communities, dysfunctions, guilt, all of it. It’s difficult to say whether the Church has been either a “good” or a “bad” thing in my life, when the Church has always been such a central aspect of it.
Another point. In a lot of our debates and discussions about doctrines and making nuanced judgments and all of that, we’re assuming that people are coming from a viewpoint of adults. But things are very different when you’re a child in the church. When I was in Primary, I thought a bishop couldn’t be wrong, let alone a prophet. And you can’t tell me that at the age of five, I should have known better. We might talk about the complexities of gender roles, but that’s not what kids are going to see. They’re going to notice which sex is the one in charge. And when we’re thinking about church practices and policies, I think that’s worth remembering—the messages we’re sending to our children. The messages that you internalize when you grow up in the church.
I’m reading back over this and realizing that a lot of it may not be unique to non-converts. But I do wonder sometimes how my experience would be different if there were a clear break in my life, a before and after, when it came to being LDS. (Not necessarily better or worse–just different.)
- 15 April 2014