Basically, the bishop offered to continue to meet with me with the goal of helping me re-establish a relationship with Jesus and to know that Jesus is in charge of the LDS church. He told me that this knowledge has brought him great happiness and that he wanted to share that with me. I shared with him some of my concerns that I felt contradicted some of the claims that the church makes. It was a civil and kind conversation all around, I thought, but it got me to thinking, what would it take to get me back to full activity and belief in the LDS church?
Would some sort of spiritual experience do it? I have a deeply rational/analytic personality and despite praying heavily all my life I have honestly just felt like I was talking to myself. When I initially started learning the details of the origins of Mormon polygamy, the Book of Abraham, and racist comments* made by past prophets I decided to apply methods that I had been taught my entire life to solve the problem. I prayed about it. At the time, I was exceptionally emotional. So I opened myself up to the possibility that God would explain it all to me. I said a prayer and asked what I was supposed to do and I felt a calm, peaceful feeling come over me and felt distinctly that I should no longer try to justify Joseph Smith and other LDS church leaders' questionable behavior and that I should no longer be a disciple of that church.
Now that is a hard story for an LDS believer to swallow. In the believer's paradigm the church is true, so the Spirit would never tell someone to separate themselves from it. If I got that answer, I *must* have done something wrong. This presents an interesting conundrum. The Spirit is on the one hand the highest form of truth. It is what you use to establish the veracity of the church, so it is necessarily higher in the hierarchy of tools to use to determine truth than the teachings of the church itself. The LDS church teaches that the Spirit is the most sure way to know something. On the other hand, the spirit can be unreliable. Also according to LDS church teachings, the Devil can give you spiritual promptings or your own feelings can be easily mistaken for spiritual promptings from God. I don't understand how a method can be both so sure and unsure.
It ends up playing out a lot like this in practice: A person who feels prompted by the spirit to leave the church is told to ask God again. The logic becomes completely circular. A Mormon would never tell someone to ask again and again if they received an answer to stay in the church, but they have no problem telling someone to ask again and again with the goal of getting an answer to stay in the church. The funny thing is, there is also a well-known cautionary tale in LDS teachings (the story of the lost 116 pages) that serve to caution against asking again after receiving an answer from God.
Another interesting thing I have done is read, or whenever possible watched on YouTube, people sharing how they know that their religion is correct. It is almost invariably that they asked God and had a positive emotion as a response to that prayer or that they just know it is true because of how they feel when they are listening to the teachings. I watched footage of "Heaven's Gate" cult followers talking about how they knew that their religion was true and I was really struck with how similar it was to being in an LDS testimony meeting. How do I make sense of that in the Mormon paradigm?
When it comes down to it, I think that the answer to my prayer did come from me. I don't think that a simple emotional feeling is enough to establish the truthfulness of something beyond a reasonable doubt.
Okay, so a simple feeling probably wouldn't be enough to get me back. Would I accept a visit from the God of Abraham in the flesh as a spiritual experience that would put me back in full church activity? Possibly.
You see, given the behavior of the God of Abraham in the Bible and in LDS history, I think if he does in fact exist it is a distinct possibility that he is not a good or moral being. For me to follow him, we would have to sit down and have a chat where he would explain some seemingly unexplainable things. For instance, why he ordered genocide and the killing of babies in Canaan, why he was cool with slavery, why he sent an angel with a sword to threaten to kill Joseph Smith unless he married dozens of women, etc. Earlier in my life I was okay to have a parent/child relationship with my church where my church would tell me what to do and I would do it without question. I now would demand an adult/adult relationship, even to God's face. I need to be told why I am doing something and then be invited to do it. I deserve that.
Jesus Leading the Church
I want to address another thing that my bishop said in our chat, that he knows that Jesus is the head of this church and that he wanted to restore my relationship with Jesus. I responded to him that I have no problems with Jesus and my issues were that I didn't think that the data lines up with that theory. To be sure, the LDS church has some beautiful teachings and motivates a lot of people to do good, but I don't see Jesus leading Joseph Smith to give coercive marriage proposals to teen foster daughters. I don't see Jesus telling Brigham Young to declare that slavery is God's will to the Utah Territorial Legislature (leading to the legalization of slavery in Utah in 1852). I don't see Jesus when LDS church leaders deny the practice of polygamy while practicing it in secret. What does it even mean when Mormons say that Jesus is leading the church? Does it mean that he occasionally bumps them in the right direction while they make huge moral mistakes in the name of God? Or does it mean that Jesus wanted all of these weird things to happen? I need an explanation if I were to ever even consider coming back.
You see, for a very long time Jesus was my hero. Mormons are famous for reading the Book of Mormon over and over but I always wanted to read the four Gospels. I don't have problems with Jesus, I have problems with LDS church leaders and their inability or unwillingness to condemn bad decisions by past leaders. I just don't think that Jesus would have a problem doing that.
Another thing my bishop touched on was his desire to share with me the happiness that he feels in the LDS church. I didn't say anything in our visit, but it seems like the assumption behind his statement was that I am unhappy for having left the church. This is the complete opposite of how I feel. I am happier now than I have ever been, and I was never more miserable than when I truly believed it all and was doing everything that the church asked of me. I am an introvert and the LDS church can be pure hell for introverts. I served as an Elder's Quorum President and during that time I would dwell on how restful death would be if I got in an accident and died, because I was continuously being asked to do things that were *way* outside my comfort zone. So you have to excuse me if I am skeptical that I am going to jump back in to church activity and that everything will be sunshine and roses for me. After having left the LDS church behind, I am happier and more fulfilled than I have ever been in my life. That isn't to say that losing my faith wasn't a traumatic experience and didn't cause me great pain and a need for healing, but I wouldn't trade back for anything now. Only now that I have separated myself from the church am I now unafraid of dying. Strangely, it terrified me when I was a believer.
For me, the main problem with participation in the LDS church is that it doesn't meet my needs. I don't get to discuss the things that interest me there. The lessons re-hash the same things over and over and don't answer the real questions I have. Why do God and prophets do things that seem morally reprehensible? Why is it a measure of our goodness whether we believe that things that seem morally bad are really somehow morally good (though we can't understand why)? Why isn't it more important that I treat others with kindness than that I believe a certain way about events long in the past? Why does that even matter at all?
What Are Prophets For?
This brings up another thing I don't understand. What is the role of a prophet? Because if God is going to go through all of the trouble of calling a prophet, it logically follows that God must have a strong desire to communicate clearly with us. So why is it that the best answer to my concerns is, "We'll find out after we die." Why doesn't the prophet just ask God why there was a priesthood ban for anybody of African descent if current church leaders don't know how the ban started? When Ordain Women tells the church leadership that they feel that women should have the priesthood and asks them to ask God if it is time to give the priesthood to women, why don't the church leaders just say, "Thanks for the suggestion. We asked and the answer is ..."? Why do they get defensive and offer stern warnings about the tone of the question? If the question is a good one, who cares who asked it or what their tone was? Or is it inappropriate for prophets to ask God questions?
Back to the Original Question
So what would it take to get me back into full activity? The church would have to take a new direction in a lot of things. Church culture would have to drastically change so that we celebrate learning from the mistakes of the past instead of pretending they never happened. The church would be much more focused on kindness than obedience. In fact, obedience would never be asked for, reasons simply would be given to do something and it would be up to the individual what to do. The church would focus on moral reasoning rather than on strict obedience. They would have to be completely comfortable with the full participation of non-believers. It would be a completely different place, which is why I am not asking for this to happen. Even if all that happened, I may not want to go. I'm an introvert and I think I'm already doing pretty well at moral reasoning. I go out with friends and we discuss moral concerns in small group settings and that really is enough for me. There really is no church-sized hole in my soul.
On the other hand, to be clear, I don't think there is anything that can ever make me believe that there is a just and prefect creator of the universe that wanted so badly for Joseph Smith to have dozens of wives that he sent an angel with a sword to threaten to kill him if he didn't (as is taught in the new lds.org essay on Nauvoo polygamy and in the new seminary manual). If I have to believe those sorts of things, I don't think I can do it. I will stay a lone wolf. I don't think it is possible for me to go back to that unquestioning, uncritical belief that I had earlier in my life.