Wasteland

I suppose I should have no surprise about what I am going through. I have fought doubt for a long time, simply ignoring it over a more convenient, if more superficial, belief. If belief were less convenient, or rebellion more tempting, I would probably have probably come to this crisis long ago.

After about 15 years of adulthood I found myself more comfortable with facing the uncomfortable. It seems better to face now what will eventually have to be faced later since if I do not pass through this crisis I don’t think I will have a clear handle on the meaning and purpose of my life. Of course the danger and the fear is, that I am losing my direction and ability to recognize my purpose, and I am, at the same time, alienating myself from one of the greatest sources of meaning and inspiration I have known.

It’s a terrifying and even engulfing feeling. It turns out, that the feeling is utterly common among those who think deeply about faith and meaning in life throughout the history of the world. It is reflected in the scriptures on several occasions, the most notable of which is in the Book of Job, which depicts a man at his most confounded and conflicted, wishing for death and cursing the day he was born. It is iterated in the words of Jesus when he asked why his God had forsaken him on the cross. To accept and embrace that feeling is, to me, a critical part of accepting our humanity. I have come to accept the feeling as, at times, inescapable, and to reject position of some religious who claim that God will ultimately protect His followers from it.

Joseph Campbell, in a pithy section in the Creative Mythology volume of his series The Masks of God describe what he calls an essential problem of the Christianized Western World. Campbell explains how historical and scientific discovery has lead to a deep alienation in the Western Consciousness:

“Unhappily, however in the light of what is now known, not only of the history of the Bible and the Church, but also of the universe and evolution of species, a suspicion has been confirmed that was already dawning in the Middle Ages; namely, that the biblical myth of Creation, Fall and Redemption is historically untrue. Hence, there has now spread throughout the Christian world a desolating sense not only of no divinity within (mythic dissociation) but also of no participation in divinity without (social identification dissolved): that, in short is the mythological base of the Waste Land of the modern soul, or, as it has been called these days, our “alienation”.

The sense of desolation is experienced on two levels: first the social, in a loss of identification with any spirituality compelling, structuring group; and, beyond that, the metaphysical, in a loss of any sense of either identity or of a relationship with a dimension of experience, being, and rapture any more awesome than that provided by an empirically classifiable conglomerate of self-enclosed, separate, mutually irritating organisms held together only by lust (crude or sublimated) and fear (of pain and death or of boredom). “

This is appears to be where I am at. The general depiction of creation and simple acceptance of scripture and doctrine and certain historical accounts generally accepted among my fellow Mormons and other Christians seems inaccurate, incomplete or incompatible with other evidence and intuition that I trust. The dissonance puts a wedge between my own intellectual conscience and the Church and where I have always looked for greater hope, meaning and elevation. As Campbell mentions, the dissonance leads me, at times, to the cold reduction of all my thoughts, wonder and spirit into some materialistic theory based on a crude understanding of biology. I think intellectual discomfort with half-truth, unsound argument, ignored fact or manipulated logic is a force that is completely underestimated by those who don’t have it, or suppress in themselves. Thus the problem is not adequately (or ever) really addressed at church.
            Mormonism during its short history has built a superficial mythology around itself that is easily punctured and has built itself up through a corporate structure that is often alienating. What people find when they dig is that the history of the church has been whitewashed by its leaders and members, which causes doubt and often a sense of betrayal, the Church doesn’t appear to be precisely what it often claims to be. Even if you ultimately can get past the use of propaganda to make the Church appear more appealing, the ignorance, myopia, or intolerance of some members of the church can make social activity unappealing and unsatisfying. A Mormon thus alienated is left in a waste land, having been disconnected from the perceived source of the most real spiritual experiences they have had, and left without direction as where to re-experience that spirit. Often this leads to the wholesale rejection of religion and God, feeling as if they were fooled by the Church they were equally fooled into thinking that their psychological reactions to the religion were real spiritual experiences.

The dissonance between the totality of evidence and the story of a faith makes me rethink my spiritual experiences, doubt my faith in God, distrust the Church, and leaves me alienated. It also leaves me without an effective way to explain my faith and my spiritual experience. If my faith has crumbled in some of the standard axioms of the Mormon religion, what can I make of my religious experiences, which have often been profound? How do I make sense of them in a way that enables me to maintain a connection with and trust in spiritual experience?

The prospects outside of Mormonism do not seem to be any better. At times it seems as if all religious belief is propped up by followers with self-deception and willful ignorance of history, science or reason (or all three). Veneration and near worship of religious texts can seem completely bizarre when considered from an outside perspective. The typical conception of God seems monstrous in light of what I believe about love and justice. The eastern and roman catholic churchs as institutions seem to be obsessed with dogma and shoring up the institution and push creeds that are impossible to swallow in the manner they are offered. The Bible is offered as the inerrant truth, and what it says in places can impossible to square with plausibility, morality or history. On top of this, the fact that there are thousands of religious directions available makes me doubt that there is a golden ticket to be found out there, that cannot be found within the sphere of the religion that I grew into. But some sort of search outside the context of my experiences to some new religion seems premature and fruitless if I cannot deal adequately with the fact that I have had spiritual experiences and even continue to have them. Ultimately I have to come to grips with the religious experiences I have had in order to understand how to interpret whatever experiences come my way in the future. Escape is not an effective option. Traveling away from what I have experienced does not help. I agree what Emerson said:


” He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. . . Traveling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.” R. W. Emerson – Self Reliance

Lately I have come to believe that unless (or until) I recognize and deal with the “giant” that is my struggle for understanding and meaning of my life and my experiences with a diligence and dedication of thought, talent and effort I will remain in the waste land that I appear to have found myself in. I am optimistic that there is a way out.

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12 responses to “Wasteland

  1. I also believe that there is a way out of the predicament that you find yourself in. I wish I could give you the “key” that would solve everything, but I can’t. The main problem that I see is that you are doubting the spiritual experiences you have had. I don’t know what experiences those were, but whatever they are, if you are doubting their veracity, then you have a real crisis of faith on your hands. Spiritual experiences are the anchor of faith. A man or woman who experiences spiritual manifestations can get past problems with history, behavior of members and leaders, and other obstacles. Heck, even doctrine that you choke on can be swallowed with the right spiritual manifestation attending, but once those manifestations are thought to be invented by you yourself, a delusion given to you by the suggestion of others, or some other type of self-hypnosis, and not the real deal of the Holy Ghost or God speaking to you or manifesting in some way, then nothing else can be swallowed or accepted.

    I’ve been a member of the church for a long time now and I made it a point from the very start to analyze the heck out of each and every manifestation I ever got or get. I’ve gone through times when information has been presented to me that has led to temptations of doubt, but then I’ve always looked over the one type of experience in my life that was vastly different than the others: spiritual manifestations, and the re-analyzation of those experiences always brings me to the same conclusion: I can’t deny or doubt that they really happened. Those experiences are the foundation of my personal existence, meaning that those manifestations are more real to me than anything else I’ve experienced. They are also numerous and varied and present a body of personal evidence that I can not ignore. They include revelations, prophecies, prophecies fulfilled, visions, dreams, angels, devils, audible voices, healings, etc. So, though faced with the same whitewashed Mormon history, or the same Mormon culturalism, or the same biblical inconsistencies, I, personally, can’t just dump it all and walk away. There has got to be an explanation to the problems that confront us, because my own personal, spiritual manifestations cannot be explained away in non-supernatural ways. Unfortunately, I can’t help you with your doubts of your own spiritual experiences. That’s a hurdle only you can jump. The other stuff, like creationism and science apparently having conflict is easily solved with plasma theology, which is the real meaning of many Mormon doctrines. But even accepting plasma theology and solving the supposed conflict between religion and science will not solve the doubt of your personal spiritual experiences. For all I know, you may have every reason to doubt them. I don’t know what they were; maybe they were just in you mind. Or maybe not. If I were in your shoes, though, I’d probably seek to have new experiences, ones which upon analyzation, could not be so easily discounted as just being in your head. Then, once you were sure of their veracity, I’d tackle everything else. Good luck, at any rate!

  2. Anarchist,

    I appreciate your comments. My primary doubts focus not on my spiritual experiences, which I accept, but my interpretation of them in view of my other knowledge and understanding. My struggle is for a good interpretation of them. I am still a Mormon regardless of the wasteland that I am in, but I can’t accept all of the typical Mormonist answers to my questions. I don’t have the confidence in Mormonism that I once had. So I am stripping things down just to my spiritual experiences and hope to build a way to intepret life out of them that works.

  3. In that case, I’d say you are in a good position. In my experience, it is always easier to have spiritual experiences than to correctly interpret them. I think you are doing the right thing, starting with the spiritual manifestations and going from there. I have incorrectly interpreted a number of revelations, prophecies, inspired dreams and visions, only to have the correct interpretation reveal itself later. As a result, I am not of the opinion that just because someone receives a revelation, they automatically can give a correct interpretation of it. If you have received experiences which require interpretation and if you still are capable of receiving revelation, it is possible to receive the interpretation of a revelation by seeking such interpretation. What I mean is, it may not be in your best interest to attempt to interpret your revelations yourself. It may be a better strategy to go to the source of the revelation for additional revelatory interpretation. I haven’t always done that in the past, and as I said, I have sometimes interpreted incorrectly. Luckily, though, the correct interpretation can and does come, if sought. One thing I would be wary of, though, is relying on other people’s opinions on what the meaning of your revelations are. It’s okay to get other people opinions, perspectives and viewpoints, as they may possess additional knowledge or facts that may help you, but ultimately, it is up to you to interpret your experiences. Unfortunately, we don’t always have sufficient knowledge to arrive at the correct conclusion of things. Sometimes it requires viewing the bigger picture to get it right. This has been my experience in the past when I’ve interpreted incorrectly. I wasn’t aware of certain facts that, had I known, I would have pegged a different interpretation. Sometimes it just takes time and life experience to acquire more facts before a proper judgment can be made of religious experiences. So, I don’t think things are always so clean cut and black and white. I wish I could offer a better perspective, but in my experience, sometimes it’s just all grey.

    As for typical Mormon answers, I’m not sure what they are. But whatever they are, each person has to discover for himself “the truth of all things.” Just because there are typical, cookie-cutter answers given, or canned responses, doesn’t mean they apply to your particular situation. If you are a baptized, confirmed member, you’ve got access to the Holy Ghost and can get it to tell you the truth of all things, whether those things come from outside or inside the church, it doesn’t matter. Use it to discern the truth from error as best you can and cleave unto the truths you determine are real. There’s not much else that a person can do.

  4. I gave unbelief a shot once. But it just didn’t work out. It felt like I was being melodramatic or something – taking myself too seriously.

    I got this distinct impression of God looking at me with wry amusement and saying – “Who do you think you’re kidding? You’re a Mormon. Get over it!”

    And here I am I guess.

  5. Thanks for the comment Seth, I am certainly not settled in unbelief, I really want something to believe in, I want something to structure my life and give me some degree of redemption. Mormonism is rich enough, I think, to encompass what I am looking for. I just need to find a way to explain it to myself.

  6. Pingback: The anchors of narrative « Irresistible (Dis)Grace

  7. “It’s a terrifying and even engulfing feeling. It turns out, that the feeling is utterly common among those who think deeply about faith and meaning in life throughout the history of the world.”

    Well..much of the terror I think occurs because well..growing up in the US the idea of being thoughtful is in some respects lost.

    So when you start thinking you start questioning and when you start questioning you start searching and when you start searching you have a search what seems to feel like a trip to Mordor and back.

    It is easy as a youth to go to Church because “I’m supposed to” and just be on auto pilot in some respects.

  8. “A Mormon thus alienated is left in a waste land, having been disconnected from the perceived source of the most real spiritual experiences they have had, and left without direction as where to re-experience that spirit.”

    You can either choose to become alienated or you can change your perspective / purpose of Church itself.

    There are many purposes behind the organization of Christ’s Church. Many attend Church simply to be taught but that isn’t the only purpose of the Church.

    When you are a youth 0-18 your purpose to essentially to learn. You may teach a little but overall your going to learn for the most part.

    Some people continue this phase throughout their lives for the most part but in Mosiah it states:

    “Yea, and are willing to mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort, and to stand as witness of God at all times and in all things, and in all places that ye may be in, even until death, that ye may be redeemed of God, and be numbered with those of the first resurrection, that ye may have eternal life-”

    I don’t know about you but I can’t say that I have spent much time at Church:

    1. “mourning with mourners”
    2. “Comforting those that need comfort”
    3. I occasionally bear my testimony

    These are a few more things to keep in mind of purposes for attending Church.

    A few more could be probably thought up from just thinking about the 4 fold mission of the Church.

    1. Perfecting the saints

    You mentioned a lot of examples about how you were off put by other LDS members attitudes and opinions? To help other be less critical and more Christlike could become a purpose for attending Church.

  9. “Lately I have come to believe that unless (or until) I recognize and deal with the “giant” that is my struggle for understanding and meaning of my life and my experiences with a diligence and dedication of thought, talent and effort I will remain in the waste land that I appear to have found myself in. I am optimistic that there is a way out.”

    I have held onto the idea found in the scripture..seek and ye shall find. I’m generally a messy, unorganized, ADD person and even with a bunch of crap that makes things more difficult I have found “wisdom and great treasure of knowledge, even hidden treasures;”

    I know that is a WoW promise but I think it is an idea that is connected to searching in general as well.

    We are encouraged to “search ye out of the best books…” a few times in the D&C.

    I have known what it feels like to be in a wasteland in more ways than one and I know what it like to be there for years at a time.

  10. Thanks for the thoughts Marcus,

    I was a firm believer in what I see as the primary theme of the Book of Mormon — discerning meaning in life through direct experience. I believe that our practices are the path to contentment and Mormons generally develop pretty sensible life practices.

    However, over the years my main beef with the Church has shifted to its theology. I think Mormons would gain a lot by adopting a more orthodox/evangelical approach to salvation, not only because it is superior in practice, but because that is be Jesus taught.

    This is where I am at now:
    https://ldstalk.wordpress.com/2015/05/07/the-gospel-to-a-five-year-old-part-2/

  11. “discerning meaning in life through direct experience”

    Not sure I completely understand what you mean by that. I assume you mean that you..understand life by your experiences?

    I don’t know what to think about that per se because it still seems pretty vague to me.

    We are encouraged to get / receive revelation for our own lives and I believe this is a main / primary theme of the book of Mormon. Is this what you mean?

    What do you mean that the church has shifted its theology?

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