Friday, March 24, 2006

Identity and Religious Belief

My wife has been taking a class on human psycho-social development as a first step in preparing for a new a career as a social worker. A discussion we had a couple of nights ago about identity formation led me to reflect on my transformation over the past several months, including the evolution of my religious beliefs.

I've never been an orthodox Mormon. I've lived with doubts, some of them profound, ever since I joined the church in my teenage years. But the natural evolution and maturation of my beliefs accelerated over the past year as I felt my emerging gay identity come into ever sharper conflict with what I thought I believed or what I wanted to believe or what I thought I should believe. I think one thing common to the gay Mormon experience is cognitive dissonance. You are taught to believe one thing, but your experience comes into conflict with it. This happens to other people, of course, but I think it happens to almost all gay Mormons at some point. And that usually leads to a crossroads of sorts: continue to believe what you have been taught and redefine (or deny) your own experience, or accept the truth of your experience and let your spiritual and religious beliefs adapt. Throughout my life, I've tended to the latter option. That is particularly true now.

I've never been a literalist and I've always had my doubts about certain "truths" as the LDS Church teaches them: the nature of God, the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the claim to authority among them. I don't think I've ever hid my skepticism--not from my friends, not from my family, and not from my church leaders. But I adopted the Mormon view as the lens through which I chose to understand God and experience spirituality (and resolve the problems or gaps that emerged in my understanding), so I didn't ever feel especially conflicted in my younger years. As I have better understood how we form our identities, I have come to better understand why I joined the Church when I did--as a teenager--and stayed despite a lack of faith in some of its teachings. It seems clear to me now that when I was a teenager I was so uncomfortable with my emerging sexual identity, that I was quite happy to take on a Mormon identity instead--an indentity which was handed to me complete and which was then reinforced on my mission and in Church service opportunities that bonded me to the community and that provided a very real and meaningful vehicle for experiencing God. It was easy to set aside some of my own personal doubts or ignore the shallowness of my faith in some areas when the Church was providing so much meaning in my life and was helping me build a sense of self and an identity that was more in line with what I thought I wanted.

That's not to say that I didn't truly believe or develop a "testimony"--I did. I just never believed in the same way that I think many other Mormons do. In fact, an in-law of mine once remarked to me that I seemed to lack a big conversion experience, a moment when I felt God speaking to me and cofirming the truth of all things, as Moroni promises. I think I did lack the big experience. I had a conversion "story" -- a narrative that explained my transition from non-Mormon to Mormon, but I didn't have that moment. Instead, I grew into it and became comfortable with the identity the Church was offering me. I don't think I really felt converted to the Church in a meaningful way until my mission, even though I felt affection for and loyalty to it before then. I better understand why now at this stage in my life. I needed a Mormon identity as much as I needed a Mormon testimony.

So where am I now? I am constructing a new identity as a gay man--a more authentic identity. I've rejected my Mormon identity because of the conflict I perceive in keeping it while adopting a gay one. I'm starting over with my religious beliefs, as I realize how much my "testimony" has changed to integrate with my new identity. My faith is now more genuine. Mostly I'm content to think of my beliefs as my own rather than a part of any system or formal theology. My faith is part Mormon, part liberal Protestant, probably even a little Catholic, with a healthy dose of agnosticism tossed into the mix. For now, I'm very happy not to box myself in.

5 comments:

Foxx said...

Yes, yes, yes!

Taking your own experience for the experience it is gives to me what feels like a more accurate representation of reality than trying to squeeze it into a cognitive twist. You know, so it won't conflict with whatever pre-conceived notions you have.

And I think you've pointed out to me one of the reasons why I think religion is really important for some people. It makes the process of identity so cut and dry - it saves you a lot of the work of figuring things out for yourself. It allows you to ignore conflicting data, so you can live with the peace that everything is just as you believe it to be.

Chris said...

foxx:

And I think you've pointed out to me one of the reasons why I think religion is really important for some people. It makes the process of identity so cut and dry - it saves you a lot of the work of figuring things out for yourself.

Absolutely. It is no accident that the LDS Church sends its young men on missions at a time when identity is solidifying. It's brilliant, really. And it's no wonder gay Mormons struggle mightily to let go of their Mormon identity.

-L- said...

What a beautifully written introspection. I am very impressed with the manner in which you have examined your life and your feelings. It's something everyone ought to do.

Also, thanks for all your comments on my blog. It's so much more fun when people actually respond. ;-)

tbirdguy58 on gaycom said...

Warning: this comment is full of opinion and bias!! No offense intended to anyone who may read...

I'm in complete agreement with you both. I was LDS born/raised. God never told me it was "true," but everyone else did. I was so immersed in it all that I was convinced. But all along I had to keep HEAVILY applying cognitive dissonance. So many, many things seemed ludicrous, but I'd excuse them away. As long as someone keeps wanting something to be true, it will be. For the LDS church, it all hinges on the BOM. If charming missionaries, your friends or family "feel" it is true, then by golly you'll want to believe it too. Never mind the facts, they just get in the way.

But I must have truly lost the "spirit." I cringe at believing in a money digger hiding his head in a hat to see words on a seer stone. Magically he came up with translations for an unhistoric, unprovable history (ask the LDS scholars, they can't make heads or tails of it. National Geographic and Smithsonian completely dismiss it), written on gold plates that don't exist (hidden away for safekeeping by an "angel?" If they existed someone would have dug them up by now). We don't discuss the money-digging or peep-stone-in-the-hat stuff in church, it's too embarrassing. Magic isn't in vogue like it was in the 19th century.

And remembering the bizarre outfit, rituals/threats, chanting and knocking that goes on in the temple (as if THAT'S what God expects us to do to get into heaven???... PLEASE! Sounds more like a hastily-contrived frat initiation prank). While doing baptisms for the dead as a teen, I was incredulous when they kept repeating the pattern of rattling off a name and then dunking me in the baptismal font. I just "knew" this couldn't be anything an intelligent God would condone.

But I dismissed all the craziness away, just kept buying it no matter what. Yes, bought... many years of 10% gross! I want my hard-earned money back. And it hurts to see my family all taken in by it. There's no reaching them. Yet they fell sorry for ME and pray for ME to come around?

Sorry for the diatribe Hurricane... I'm really glad to see your brain functioning independently from the MORG (rhymes with BORG!).

Foxx is right, people do want to follow a plan (no matter how absurd may I add) rather than forge their own way. But it's much more fulfilling to be your own person!!! My post-LDS life is pure heaven on earth. Lifetime depression disappeared. I wish this forum existed when I set out upon my journey. You and your fellow bloggers are a great group.

From reading your blog history I see you've been through hell and I respect you immensely. Be strong! You're intelligent and have lots of support.

Dave Walter said...

My faith is part Mormon, part liberal Protestant, probably even a little Catholic, with a healthy dose of agnosticism tossed into the mix. For now, I'm very happy not to box myself in.

When I broke away from Catholicism, it opened the door to unrestrained spiritual exploration. It was liberating and intellectually invigorating.