Thursday, June 20, 2013

Bringing Up Agnostic Mormon Baby

The trickiest (and to many people, the most hypocrital) part of my Agnostic Mormonism is the question of where exactly I'm leading my children. My participation in the church and how I reconcile that with my actual beliefs are very complex things. I can't really discuss them with a 6-year-old. And yet, I'm bringing these kids to church and I'm reading the scriptures to them and we're listening to and singing Primary songs. They're slowly picking up on gospel principles. And I'm sort of encouraging it!

In this post, I talked a little bit about how I answer gospel questions and how and why I teach my children the gospel. Today I want to talk about what outcome I'm hoping for.

One of my brothers (who has been inactive his entire adult life) has always let my mom bring his kids to church with her. They've even been baptized! My husband and I were baffled by that for the longest time, because we couldn't imagine sending our kids into a place to learn things that we definitely do not believe.

But you know what? That attitude was actually born of my Mormon upbringing.

It's my Mormon upbringing that makes me terrified (or even just uncomfortable) that my kids will believe something different from what I believe. It's my Mormon upbringing that makes me terrified that my kids might subscribe to something that isn't "true". Mormons are scared of that. They're scared of "losing" their children to other belief systems. But the only reason to be scared of losing your children to another belief system is if you actually believe the thing you have is absolutely and exclusively true. And since I'm agnostic, and agnosticism is all about NOT claiming truth, the reality is that it just isn't that big of a deal if my kids believe something different from me or something that I feel is untrue or just plain long as it isn't making them do crazy things or treat other people badly. What's the worst that could happen? My kids might become faith-filled, believing Mormons. There are worse things. (Although there are few things worse than the idea of my kids becoming the judgmental, a-hole kind of Mormons. You know what I'm talking about, right?)

What I don't want for my kids is for them to experience a traumatic, life-changing faith crisis like mine. That's why I teach them the gospel from an agnostic perspective.

I teach them the stories from the scriptures, but I teach them as just that--stories. Even better if those stories illustrate courage or kindness or some other awesome character trait that I want my kids to develop. The biggest reason I teach them the scripture stories is because I plan to raise them in this church community and I want them to be culturally literate. I want them to know the stories and understand the references people make to them, because I don't want them to feel like outsiders. This is their church and their community. They shouldn't feel like outsiders.

When it comes to the hard theological questions, I try to answer in agnostic terms: "Some people believe X, some people believe Y, but nobody really knows for sure." I want them to be comfortable with not knowing the answers. I'm okay if they grow up to have "real" testimonies, but I kind of hope that they'll grow up to be agnostic Mormons like me. I want them to believe that we can't really know the church is true, but that the principles of the gospel can enrich your life and strengthen your family and make you a better person. I want them to believe that they can benefit from it without it necessarily being true.

I tend to look at the gospel narrative very figuratively, and I try to teach my children in the same way. Tons of religious people interpret their religion figuratively. They don't believe that some guy named Noah actually built a gigantic boat and then rounded up two of every.single.animal in the world and stuck them on said boat for 40 days. They view it all as an allegory, a vehicle for communicating worthy principles. Mormons don't do that. Not only do they interpret it all literally, but they also have a weirdly detailed answer for everything (Kolob, anyone?). I just try to benefit from the principles, and if that means imbibing the stories--and letting some weird details go in one ear and out the other--then that's okay.

My husband works with a lot of cultural Jews who maintain their traditions because it's what they grew up doing, it's a community they value, it gives their lives some kind of structure and meaning, etc. They don't have life-changing faith crises, because they never believed that their faith was the absolute story of existence. They never based their lives on whether or not it was true. They didn't allow the stakes to be so high.

I try to approach Mormonism that way. I don't take it too seriously. It's more my culture than it is my religion. I'm hoping that my kids will sort of catch that. Right now, I can't have deep theological conversations with them, but I can answer questions in a way that tells them we don't really know and that's okay.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

WWBD--What would Batman do?

The other day, my 6-year-old was faced with a very important decision. Her little brother asked her for some help and she hesitated, because she was in the middle of something and didn't want to help him. I encouraged her to do it, giving the usual reasons. You know, when someone needs help, you should give it to them. In our family, we love each other, and that means helping each other. If you needed help from him, what would you want him to do? You get the picture. She chose to whine and complain that it wasn't fair and she was busy, blah, blah, blah.

And then, in my failure to convince her, for the first time ever, I employed the old, "What would Jesus do?" It was terribly effective. She knew immediately what she should do and she did it without further complaint.

For shame, huh? Manipulative? Disingenuous, given my agnostic leanings?

I don't think so, and here's why.

If my kid has to go the doctor and get a shot and he is terrified, is it manipulative of me to ask him, "What would Batman do if he had to get a shot?" Is it disingenuous, because I technically don't believe that Batman is a real person? I don't think so. But it IS effective. Batman has some good qualities, bravery and fearlessness among them. If my kid admires Batman, and Batman is a character worthy of emulation, why wouldn't I use that to help my kid make good choices?

Regardless of my opinions on the divine status of Jesus, I do find him to be a very admirable character. He is, at the very least, a symbol of everything good. After all, he IS perfect, at least according to the narrative. He is honest, kind, loving, gentle, charitable, generous, patient, forgiving, just, merciful, etc. He is everything we want our children to be. Even if he is only a literary character, the idea of him is something worth emulating.

My daughter gets tired of hearing me lecture about how she "should" behave. But this question, What would Jesus do? It kind of wraps up a lot of preachy teaching in one question. It's like asking, "What is the honest/kind/generous/merciful thing to do?" She knows what it means. She learns about this Jesus guy and she looks up to him. It's a simple, non-preachy way to get my message across without her turning her ears off.

On a similar note, I was recently at a park day gathering of Mormon homeschoolers (that's right, y'all, I homeschool!), and they were discussing an idea that I think is pretty smart. They were talking about noticing certain qualities in your children and relating them to scripture characters. For example, "Wow, you were really obedient, just like Nephi!" I think it's awesome. And it takes a little of the preachy preachy, yappy Mommy out of the picture. These good qualities are summed up in upstanding characters that our children admire. I say use them!

Friday, June 14, 2013

Gospel discussions that actually help and inspire

Does this class discussion sound familar to any of you?

Teacher: What can we do to strengthen our ability to keep the commandments? [Or something like that.]
Respondent: Make decisions before you're in the situation. Like, if you know you never want to drink alcohol, decide today that you're never going to drink alcohol. And then when the situation presents itself, you won't have to make a difficult decision, because you already made it.
Another respondent: Yeah, and don't put yourself in situations where you'll be tempted. Like, if you don't want to drink alcohol, don't go to a bar with your friends.


Can someone please tell me, what is the point of talking about alcohol and how to avoid it in a Mormon Relief Society class? Really. Are the ladies in your Relief Society honestly struggling with this? Maybe I've been away from church for too long, but last time I was really involved in this thing, alcohol just wasn't that big of a temptation for most of the ladies who showed up on Sundays.

Here's another one. Have you ever heard the comment that goes a little something like this: "I have a friend (she's not a member of the church) who [insert random "sin" here--it's probably also related to the Word of Wisdom], and it just makes me so sad that she doesn't have the same light and knowledge that we have."

It just seems like we discuss certain topics in the exact same way every time they come up, and that way is usually not terribly helpful or inspiring.  Why are we so afraid to talk about our own weakness and how to avoid our own actual triggers? Because I have a lot of my own weaknesses. For example, I yell at my kids. It would be much more helpful for me to have a discussion about that, how I can arrange my life to minimize yelling triggers and how I might cope in ways other than yelling. Because you know what? I consider yelling at my kids to be a "sin".  I do. And it's one that I struggle with much more than I do with avoiding cigarettes.

But that kind of thing rarely pops up in a church class discussion. I almost never hear people talking about their own temptations and weaknesses at all. It's always about someone else or a theoretical, textbook example of a temptation. How is that helpful?

Also, notice how a lot of our discussions seem to center on the Word of Wisdom. What is that? The gospel is not the Word of Wisdom. The definition of our character does not lie in the Word of Wisdom. Could it be that the black-and-white part of the Word of Wisdom, the part that dictates temple worthiness (alcohol, cigarettes, and coffee), is super easy for Mormons to live and it makes them feel easy righteousness? This hardly seems like the way to improve ourselves. Becoming better is HARD. Focusing on things that are not hard for us will not make us better. Rattling off formulaic answers to formulaic gospel discussion questions will not help us grow.

Look, I'm Agnostic Mormon Mom. Part of my mission is promote raw honesty among Mormons, in their communities and in their classrooms and in their families. Honesty about our weaknesses helps us learn how to cope with them. And I don't know about you, but sometimes I feel really alone in my weaknesses. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only mom who yells at her kids like this. Sometimes I feel like I'm the only wife who is this defensive, the only stay-at-home mom who spends perhaps a little too much time on Facebook. What if there are other people who have the same struggles? Wouldn't it be nice to have some company in your imperfection?

If we could do this, maybe we could offer real solutions for each other, things that have worked for us when we faced similar struggles. And then we might grow individually and as a community. And THAT is what I believe the gospel to be about. THAT is why I am coping as an active Mormon when, technically, I'm agnostic.


Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Faith Crisis Stories

Have you all seen this?

It's a project where some researchers are studying the Mormon faith crisis phenomenon. Very, very interesting.
They said this: "While we encourage you to express yourself in whatever manner you see fit, please consider addressing: 1) The type of faith you had prior to your loss-of-faith (e.g., fully active, semi-active, non-active). 2) The reason or reasons for your loss-of-faith. 3) How you felt and what you experienced as a result of your loss-of-faith. 4) How others (family, friends, ecclesiastical leaders) have responded to your faith crisis. 5) How you would describe your current belief/relationship with the LDS Church. 6) What might have prevented your faith crisis in the first place, and 7) what, if anything, might help rebuild your faith? "
So here's my submission (before editing! 700 words is really not a lot of words when you're trying to answer all of those questions about such a complex experience and its attendant emotions.) I am not including here the part about the type of faith I had prior to my faith crisis, or the reasons for my loss of faith, as I have covered that in My Story.
Losing my faith was traumatic. For a fully active Mormon, especially a lifelong one, the gospel and its programs provide a certain structural framework that you don’t really recognize until it just kind of vanishes into thin air.  When that happened, I didn’t have any beliefs about anything, really. I had to rebuild my worldview from scratch. It was overwhelming.

On top of the faith/belief/worldview thing, it was socially very confusing. My sister-in-law happens to be my best friend from childhood. We shared a lot of “spiritual experiences” as teenagers. The gospel certainly wasn’t the bulk of our relationship, but it was a big part. And even though we obviously remained close, a part of our closeness was missing. I felt that, and so did she.

Once I realized that I wasn’t going back to church and that my beliefs had changed, I felt like I should explain myself to my mom. I felt like she deserved to know the details of my feelings.  I wrote a three-page letter.

She never acknowledged it.

I remember my mother-in-law sending us an email once where she said that she had had an “impression” that if we weren’t worthy to raise our little son in the Millennium, then she and my father-in-law would have that opportunity. My husband was pretty angry. I actually wasn’t. I knew that it was her last, desperate attempt to get us to “come back”. I knew she was devastated. We didn’t say anything to her about it, but she did apologize later.

My current relationship with the church is that I’m an openly agnostic Mormon. I was inactive for six years, but I missed the community of the church and the “program” of the gospel. I decided to find a way to make it work for me. I couldn’t “fake it”, I couldn’t just force myself to believe again, so I discovered my “hope testimony”.  For the last year, I’ve been trying to be active. I would say I’m semi-active. (My husband isn’t interested in involvement with the church, and it’s HARD doing it by myself with three little kids!) I get to church at least half the time, I read the scriptures with my kids, I pray with them, we listen to hymns and primary songs. We are trying to implement family home evening (a practice my husband actually loves).

What would have prevented my faith crisis? Mormon culture is very rigid. My hope testimony is all about avoiding absolutist thinking. It’s about flexibility and pragmatism— I do this because it makes me happier, it strengthens my family, and it enriches my life, not because I KNOW it’s true. I guess I would say that my faith crisis may have been averted if I had grown up with less rigidity and more room for doubt. As I’ve “come out” as an agnostic in my ward and on my blog, I’ve been floored by the response from people who have felt this way for years. I wish the church were a place where people could openly acknowledge their doubts and find support from others who can’t say they know. The social pressure to “know” is just too strong. And when people admit to themselves that they DON’T know, that’s when the faith crisis happens, because the gospel flow chart ends there.  There’s nowhere to go but out.

I don’t really expect to rebuild my faith. I’m satisfied with where I am.
Have you submitted your story yet?