I remember lying in bed at night while I was in grad school, staring up at the ceiling and struggling to wrap my mind around the doubts that had always been the background noise of my life but in the past year had started to coalesce from shadows into something that felt much more tangible. I have never been particularly concerned about the details of Mormonism, which is to say that many of the doctrinal or personal scandals that send others cascading out of the Church like roof tiles blown off in a storm have tended instead to kind of bounce off the surface of my brain and leave no mark after their initial impact. Maybe it’s because I was skilled at producing the kind of cognitive dissonance that jams those signals, but maybes it’s because I’ve always been more of a big picture type of person. The real question for me was not “does Joseph Smith having multiple wives mean the Church isn’t true?” and more so “is the Church true, or not?” full stop. That was the real dividing line of reality: is the Church true, or is the Church not true?
I’m not sure what triggered the more advanced stages of doubt or whether it was simply a metastasis of those earlier lingering doubts, but after a life-time of being fairly sure the Church was true, I had now suddenly jumped to asking the question of whether God existed at all in any form and whether life had any purpose at all. I had skipped past crisis of faith and flown headlong into an existential crisis in what must be some kind of relatively common grad student experience. At the time, I simply didn’t have the intellectual resources to wrestle with that kind of question, not because I was an idiot (though this was and remains true) but because most, if not all, of my religious and educational background was one in which the question of God’s existence had been thoroughly answered and never came up.
“Does God exist?” a Mormon might ask, semi-rhetorically, and the answer comes back completely unopposed, “yes, and we know this because we exist, which we couldn’t do if there were no God.” That’s the evidence given in Alma to resoundingly defeat an argument for atheism and it is now universally accepted as the answer in common Mormon parlance. “I clearly see that existence can no more be separated from the essence of God than can its having its three angles equal to two right angles can be separated from the essence of a triangle, or the idea of a mountain from the idea of a valley.” That’s what Descartes said, eloquently expressing basically the same idea. I remember reading once in a 100 level philosophy class that Descartes had premised his “I think therefor I am” argument with something like “just so you all know, this is all based on the assumption that God exists and created us.” I mean, if it was good enough for Descartes, it was good enough for me.
Until it wasn’t. I had pretty good practice, from my time as a missionary in France, where atheism is the true national religion, negating simplistic anti-theist arguments with equivalent lack of sophistication; enough at least to create a stalemate that allowed both sides to carry on unaffected by any inconvenient philosophical stumbling blocks. I’ve yet to hear a truly convincing philosophical, scientific, against at least the possibility of there being a god.
My doubts came, then, not as a confrontation with some kind of earth-shattering discovery in Church history or the discovery of some devastating discourse by the prophets of New Atheism. They simply were, like the black between stars simply is. Where the certainty of God’s existence was, there wasn’t exactly a void, but there was certainly a place where the clear water of my river of faith had suddenly entered a confluence with something much murkier. It was the classic existential confrontation with the possibility that maybe life really is meaningless, and what were the implications of that fact? I had to explore these terrifying ideas in the context of having a devoutly practicing Mormon wife, a two year old, and another baby on the way, not to mention the inherent uncertainties in being a second year master’s student.
I remember at the time having a radical change in perspective about people who leave the Church. This was terrible. It was abject. It was near constant misery. The old notion that people leave the Church because they’re looking to do so may apply to some, but from where I was sitting even the prospect of stepping out into that wide, open world gave me spiritual agoraphobia. It is not something I would wish on anybody. At times in my life I had sometimes envied people who grew up outside of the Church because they had the opportunity to explore the meaning of life and the universe themselves without the strictures of having all the answers handed to them. Suddenly, given the same opportunity, I no longer envied them. “Freedom! Terrible, terrible freedom!” to quote the Simpsons’ queenless space ants.
I don’t want to go into every detail of the process and catalytic events that led me to where I am today, because none of us has the time right now and because I’d like to treat them more thoroughly later. In the end, as the Gospel for me has always been more of an intellectual endeavor than a spiritual one, simply by my nature, my long and continuing struggle with the questions of god and faith has been the same, for better or worse. I read and thought a great deal and found myself increasingly influenced by the writings of Dostoyevsky, Camus, Kierkegaard, and Tolstoy. Kierkegaard, in particularly, struck me like a bolt of lightning.
The idea that in this absurd, swirling mess of meaningless existence one could choose to find meaning through faith in Christ became foundational to me. I wanted to have faith, I wanted to be Mormon, to be a good Christian, but had suddenly found that everything before that propped up my faith, ranging from powerful spiritual experiences to simple confirmation bias, had been swallowed up by this endless, crushing black hole of sourceless doubt. I took that idea and I used it to shield myself from those doubts as I worked my way through them, to prevent them from collapsing in on me and destroying the vestiges of my belief system. This was how I stumbled upon the concept of Mormon existentialism, embraced it, and let it carry me through some very difficult times of my life while I found my feet.
Eventually, I came to a point where my doubts, though always challenging, became less “bad” liberating (see, the space ants) and morphed into something akin to the being set free by the truth. Not the truth of the non-existence of God, not the truth of the “trueness” of Church, but simply the truth as I was now free to explore it. The truth broken free of the shackles of confirmation bias, to the extent that that’s possible. I openly recognize that I will never be able to seek out truth from a completely objective point of the view; that’s simply part of the human experience. There is certainly objective truth, but just like there are countless shades of light that the human eye cannot see because of its limitations, so too are we all limited by are own experiences, inadequacies, and personal situations. I accept that and embrace it. I am seeking the truth as a Latter-day Saint, as a Christian, as myself. I don’t buy into the notion of moral relativism, but I think that we know little enough about God and the nature of existence, even as Mormons, that there is plenty of unknown territory out there for each of us to stake a claim to, however we get there. A piece for each of us of the blind man’s elephant.
I have learned that I love the Church, and I love Christianity as a whole, as a set of universal moral truths that can be the physical and spiritual salvation of mankind, if we’d only embrace them. I’m not looking for a way out and I’m not “loyal opposition,” as some might term themselves. I’m undoubtedly heterodox in almost everything I believe, at this point, but maybe not quite a heretic. I am a wholehearted supporter of orthopraxis; whatever changes I might want to see in the Church, I am happy to work with things the way they are, an imperfect part of a striving but imperfect system. I would describe myself as an agnostic theist. I don’t condescend toward those who believe differently than I do on any part of the faith spectrum. We’re all just trying our best, for the most part. The one thing that I am really certain of is that if we ever do get to find out the true nature of life, the universe, and everything, we will almost undoubtedly find out that we were wrong about essentially everything, or at least that we understood so little that it amounts to the same thing as being altogether wrong. I am okay with that, though that wasn’t always the case. I guess I hope that maybe I can help other people be okay with that, too, whatever truth they find.