Reconstructing Faith and Questioning MoralityBy: Andrew S
If you have wandered into one of many of the related Mormon Stories communities (whether Mormon Stories itself, A Thoughful Faith, the Mormon Stories Podcast Community Facebook group) or even some non-Mormon Stories sites (such as the exmormon subreddit or the Mormon Expression Facebook group) in the past couple of weeks, then you should be well aware of the latest three-part episode series on Mormon Stories (conducted by Sarah Collett of A Thoughtful Faith). Entitled John Dehlin and Faith Reconstruction, the three-hour interview features John navigating through his faith journey (especially as it has occurred since Mormon Stories start).
This summary does not do the interview justice. And this post will not do the interview justice either. Over the three hours, Sarah leads John through often painful memories about the personal and familial strains of running what basically is Mormonism’s podcast empire, as well as the challenges of creating a post-literalistic secular community and seeing some of its constituent branches stray from the original mission. The challenges of ego and the cult of personality. But John also discusses his personal progression, ending ultimately in what the title of the podcast describes as a reconstruction of faith — John’s coming to terms with the LDS church.
As I mentioned before, this post will not do the interview justice. Instead, I only wanted to talk about one recurring topic of the interview — a topic that John and Sarah meander in and out during all three parts. John has always attracted controversy, and this time, some of his comments regarding the relationship between faith crisis and morality have stirred outrage from many disaffected Mormons. In this first part of a two-part series, I will provide a partial transcript of selections (3000 words!) from the three sections where John and Sarah discuss morality on the faith journey. Whether you have or have not listened to the podcast yourself, from reading these selections, then you should have some initial thoughts to share.
In part two, I’ll respond with my own commentary.
[20:02] SARAH: Would you say that when you use the word decline, you’re thinking in terms of intellectual connection to the doctrine of the church, or are you actually thinking in terms of spirituality…or is there a connection between the two for you?
JOHN: That’s one of the main things I’ve learned…but I was mostly engaging intellectually. I had disconnected emotionally, in many ways, and spiritually, and I said: “What matters is figuring things out in my brain. And I just need to know whether it’s true or false. Whether it’s a fraud or whether the church is what it claims to be. And emotions and spirit need to be put on hold until I can think it through…” And that didn’t turn out good for me…there were all sorts of problems with that, but that’s what I was doing. And so, if I would neglect the spirit, people, or relationships, or my own inner work or process, none of that mattered…that for me, looking back, made it in many ways, a flawed endeavor, in terms of how I handled it.
[22:00] JOHN: In ways, [helping people with their issues] feeds you emotionally and even spiritually, but I hadn’t done the soul work to be in a solid emotional place to handle that way…I wasn’t like Frodo…I wasn’t humble and meek and peaceful…I was disturbed inside…and so, I was carrying the ring as a really traumatized, inadequate, prideful, egotistical person.
[25:33] SARAH: Did anyone ever accuse you of not being spiritually in tune…did anyone ever come to you and say, “Wow, you seem to be prideful” — you know, the sins that are associated with questioning…were you accused of that or did you escape that?
JOHN: Well, the pride thing is something I look back on now; at the time I never felt prideful…I felt like I was being humble; I felt I was just doing God’s will and helping people…[snip]…I think that for sure, even before the podcast started, once I became enveloped by these difficult questions, Margi always felt there was a cloud over me…like the light in my eyes had gone out…that I was always in my head, always stewing…And even though I can pull out congeniality and warmness and friendliness as like a cloak I can put on…I’ve been in a dark place in my soul for probably 20 years…but Margi saw it and the kids saw it…
[27:46] SARAH: On a side note, a lot of people that go through the questioning process at some point deal with the question is there a god at all…and a lot of people come to the conclusion that there is no god. They face atheism and they embrace it or they decide that fundamentally they have the god gene or they crave god despite that question…did that ever occur to you and when did you really face that question?
[30:31] JOHN: …This was during the time I was working at MIT, and my faith started to unravel completely…and I remember a day when I was sitting in my hotel room, and I just said to myself, “I’m not sure there’s a god, and I’m not sure that there’s anybody watching me; I’m not sure that there’s any absolute standard for morality; I’m not sure there’s an afterlife…and if that’s the case — I started questioning what was right and wrong, I started questioning my decision to have gotten married when I did, my decision to marry Margi. it was weird how all of these dominoes just fell…Joseph smith fell, and then Jesus, and then god…and then it went straight to marriage…and there was a time for probably a couple of years where I just felt like there probably wasn’t a god and that probably lead up through my interview with John and Zilpha Larsen.
[14:50] SARAH: One of the questions that occurred to me as you were speaking earlier…[snip]…did you maintain any practice of spiritual development during that time? Were you in a place of saying prayers or did you look for or experience things from a spiritual perspective? How was that side of your living going?
JOHN: I had stopped going to church for the most part; I had stopped paying tithing; I didn’t read the scriptures, stopped praying, stopped going to the temple…and I was even questioning basic morality and whether I wanted to stay married and whether I wanted to stay committed to my family…I was as estranged and ostracized spiritually and morally as I could be. I still kept most of the commandments, but no…I was completely spiritually neglectful and malnourished. And emotionally disconnected from everybody…
[18:04] SARAH: You mentioned how you had started doing all these conferences…were you alluding to this idea that you were trying to use these conferences as a way to establish some sort of spiritual community again?
JOHN: Yeah, absolutely…[snip]…The angel on my shoulder said, “No, you want humanity to advance; you don’t want people to just throw their morality away.”
I started seeing people — and I was doing it — there’s this weird thing that happens when you lose your faith in Mormonism…you immediately start questioning your morality. Wow! I’ve never had sex before I was married…I’ve only had sex with one person…like, I don’t know anything! What if sex is way better with other people or in other ways…or, what am I missing? Is alcohol cool — like I’ve still never tried alcohol — but what if that’s really fun and interesting? And I just started saying: there’s this whole world out there that I haven’t experienced, and maybe I wouldn’t have married Margi if I had to do it all over again…maybe my family would be better off if Margi and I were to split, because…we’d be getting along better. (Why weren’t we getting along? Because I was totally emotionally disconnected.)
But you start thinking these things, and you start wondering — wow! these other women are attractive…or experimenting sexually…and you start thinking about this whole world and you see these people…it sorta reminds me of Lehi’s dream and the great and spacious building and you start seeing this stuff and it’s enticing and it looks fun. But the good Mormon boy in me and the angel on my shoulder would always say: “That’s dangerous; that’s scary…you don’t want to go there” And you don’t want to lead people there, and that’s what I felt like was happening…all these people were just checking out of the church and then they were dropping their spouse and they were sleepin’ around and drinking and doing drugs and doing all this scary stuff and I just felt irresponsible…I felt like that was irresponsible. So, I started these communities thinking: I’m not trying to create a religion because there’s no theology or doctrine here, and I don’t want to be a prophet — that was a broken model, in my mind — …but somebody’s got to bring these people together to support each other.
[snip]…I was just trying to experiment and model post-literalistic secular spirituality and community.
[29:11] SARAH: The Larsen interview for me…I recognized in your language that fully deconstructed language…because I had spoken that too…I had gone to that place where I have fully deconstructed…and it came out loud and clear, that language. and I think people who have gone through that recognize that…and it’s not like we’re coming at it from a place of, “Oh, he’s spiritually low.” We just know what it means to fully, fully accept doubt…in terms of God, and everything — meaning, morals, everything — to have a place of uncertainty be your base…so it’s interesting…because from that point, it’s been one year. And I think it’s generally well understood in the Mormon Stories community that there’s been a shift…[snip] I’m fascinated in how you recover from this place, and I also want to know if you, looking back at the conferences, is your overall takeaway a regret that you did them, or do you feel they were beneficial?…[snip]
JOHN: …I’m ambivalent about them. I think that we worked really hard to have an uplifting and constructive tone…and for the most part, we succeeded….great talks, great musical performances, great attendance…[snip]…I don’t regret them…and I think that a lot of good things came from them, and they still bearing fruit…but three things I feel badly about…one is that they came at such a heavy cost to my family, [snip] and you know, no success can compensate for failure in the home — it’s true. [snip] The second thing is that…[snip] people would bear their testimonies at the end — the little story sharing — and every one or two testimonies would say, “Thank you John Dehlin”…and it felt dangerous, it felt egoic…[snip].
At the time I felt like my motives were pure…at the time, it was just all about the pain and suffering, but that part was awful. I needed to be there because we’d get bigger draws if I attended, and if I spoke, people would come….[snip]…So there was some element of the cult of personality that I just was never comfortable with and felt that it was dangerous…because I felt I was having them trade one prophet for another, one set of dogmas for another, and I didn’t feel it was good for me to put myself in that position.
But the third thing that’s been really hard is to keep witnessing what happened. And people ended up leaving the church. People that had been believers weren’t, and then got divorced, and again, what would happen after these conferences? In some of these communities, they would hold parties, and they’d smoke weed and wives would make out…and I never watched people doing sexual things, but I’d hear about a lot of behaviors that felt dangerous — and I don’t judge that…I don’t look at those people as bad, and I don’t enforce my morality on others, and I’m not morally perfect at all, but I just sat and said, “I’m glad that people are getting together, and I’m glad that they are having a good spiritual experience…but I worried that they’ve traded down. That yeah…there are problems with the church, but there are lot of problems with trying to have an open marriage, and to be honest, I’d probably pick the problems of trying to be the church over the problems of trying to navigate an open marriage, or becoming addicted to drugs, or committing adultery…and it just seems like naturally the outgrowth of so many of these communities
…and I don’t want to color them as these debaucherous…immoral…because that wouldn’t be fair. Beautiful, moral, healthy friendships…[snip] Good things have happened, but I couldn’t help but feel responsible for the bad. And at the end, so much of the discourse in these FB communities…they just became post-mormon, angry groups…because it’s really hard to moderate respectful discourse in one forum, but in 90 forums, where people are meeting face to face…it’s impossible…so the whole enterprise of Mormon Stories, which was “we support you if you believe, we support you if you want to stay, but we support you if you want to go” — all the communities became in effect postmormon communities, and I felt like — I don’t want to be just another postmormon or exmormon community…we don’t need that…there’s plenty of that. And I certainly don’t want to be that…[snip]
SARAH: …On the one hand, I’m frustrated, because that is such a stereotype that is placed on people — “you leave the church, that means that…you’re going to start sinning.” On the one hand, I feel frustrated because that hasn’t been my own personal experience, that hasn’t happened for my husband and I, but we’ve gotten that judgment…but on the other hand…we have to acknowledge that that does happen…I guess it’s hard to look at in the face.
JOHN: Well, yeah, and I’ve gone back and forth, because I was almost there…I was moving in that direction, so I’ll go on the record — can you leave the church and be moral? Absolutely? Can you leave the church and be happy? Absolutely? Does leaving the church mean you’ll become an adulterous, drug-using, immoral person? No, not necessarily! And does all that happen in the church? Yes, in different places…so I don’t mean to stereotype this…and I don’t even mean to say that it’s bad…I’m very sure that many of these people were responsible, they went through things, they grew from it, and they’ve ended up in happier places, so I do not say all this out of a way to stereotype or condemn or judge…but all this stuff was happening in association with what I was trying to do…and it felt more serious than I was competent and spiritually and emotionally mature to steward and shepherd. I was not the soul that could lead a movement responsible enough to feel good about all the implications of what I was doing. I just wasn’t a good enough man to be able to do it.
SARAH: So it sounds like you hit rock bottom.
JOHN: yeah, totally.
[9:21] JOHN: We talked a little bit about people leaving the church and then sometimes falling into dangerous things or getting divorced…I want to say two things on the record. Number 1 is I absolutely believe that some divorces need to happen and some people’s lives improve when the divorce happens…and some families get happier when the divorce happens. And some people become more moral when they leave the church, or more ethical, or more happy…and I want to make sure that it’s explicit that I validate that path completely…that that is all possible and many people do it.
But I also want to validate this: that I know many Mormons who get to the place where when their faith unravels, they start to question their love for their spouse, they start questioning the importance of keeping the family together, and most importantly, they might find another woman that they think might be their soulmate, or they start looking at a lifestyle outside, where they say, “I wouldn’t have married this person, I wouldn’t have made these choices, and all this other stuff now looks like what I was called to do. This person might be my soulmate or this life will be the true authentic life.” And it can feel very real and compelling and enticing, and it can feel like it’s what you were meant to do…to cast off the shackles of all these bad decisions that you made in association with the church and then go live this true authentic soulmate life, possibly with someone else.
What I just wanted to also go on the record with saying is that can be a mirage, and it is also very possible that the love you’re seeking, the emotional connection you’re seeking, the emotional and intellectual and even sexual fulfillment that you think will be found by taking this completely different path can be unearthed and discovered and enjoyed right in the place where you’ve been for 5, 10, 15, or 20 years, if you’re willing to not engage the world purely with your intellect, but you’re willing to say emotion matters as much as intellect, and spirit matters as much as emotion and intellect, and love and listening and connection matters as much as intellect and integrity…you can find and discover depths of emotional intimacy and connection and love and fulfillment that you would have thought was not possible where you were
…I just wanted to let the listeners know that that also is possible…and the price that you have to pay is to take the intellectual down, raise up the emotional and the spiritual and the family and the community connections, and start experiencing life from a multidimensional standpoint where your integrity and your truth intellectually that you suppose is legitimate and credible…that you’re willing to say there’s a spiritual truth that also matters…and it is a different language that the intellect…
What are your reactions? Are there any parts of this interview that bother you? Are they fully addressed elsewhere in the interview?