Continuing our series on survivors of crises of faith, we’re proud to present an essay from Ned Flanders. Ned is well-known in the blog world, both for his genial personality and his insightful writing. Here, we get a chance to understand his journey in a more comprehensive way. Let me thank Ned in advance for his candor and care in preparing this short essay.
“Ned, have you thought about one of the other major religions? They’re all pretty much the same.”
The story of my falling away is two-parted. I had a disastrous mission. Not for me personally, I enjoyed quite a lot of it. But it killed my future in the church. I went on a mission because that’s what Mormon boys do. If you don’t have a testimony, two hard years of missionary work will give you one. Well, that’s the theory, anyway. I tried hard. I got up at ungodly hours and read the scriptures. I fasted when I had no business fasting; I went out and tracted when I could barely stand up. I threw up on dirt roads. Once I was so sick that I had to squat in the street to catch my breath. More Argentines approached me that day than in the rest of my mission combined. “Are you okay?” “Do you need a doctor?” The irony that strangers were more concerned about my well-being than my companion was not lost on me. I thought that the Lord would bless me for hurting myself for him; we all did. I gradually came to realize that, no matter how hard the mission tried to conflate the two, the Church and God were not one and the same.
I came home, gave the usual homecoming talk, and went back to college. I went to church twice after my homecoming. I’d seen too much on the mission, I was burnt out on church stuff, and I’d never received the testimony I was promised. Halfway through my mission, Elders were already joking with me how I’d be inactive when I got home. They were right.
I remained a half-believing unbeliever for six years, glimpsing the missionaries on the street occasionally, but never wanting to contact them.
Once I finally got married, the ward people started coming around. In retrospect, it’s pretty obvious that my parents tipped off the church as to my whereabouts. I started reading Times & Seasons, and I started my own Mormon-themed blog about how I was a cultural Mormon who hated the culture. I’d never seriously looked at my belief before, but the bloggernacle and its various debates forced me to look a bit closer.
Unfortunately, I didn’t like what I found. Polyandry. Extensive polygamy by Joseph, not just Brigham. Lying about polygamy to anyone and everyone. Zelph. Onandagus. Fanny Alger. Temple death oaths. Book of Abraham. Mark E. Petersen. Ezra Taft Benson. Little factories. Journal of Discourses. Miracle of Forgiveness. Proposition 22. Oh my.
All of this stuff was bad, and I felt that my non-existent testimony was dying a death by a thousand cuts. It wasn’t just one issue. Everywhere you turned there was stuff jumping out of the woodwork.
The Book of Abraham was the final nail in the coffin of my faith. Perhaps we are missing parts of the papyrus that Joseph translated from, but the facsimiles are right there, printed up in our triple combination. They are undeniable, and they don’t mean anything like Joseph said they did. They don’t even come from remotely the right time-frame either. I just couldn’t ignore this evidence. Either the entire field of Egyptology was making stuff up, or Joseph was. I felt stupid that I didn’t see it for so long. It was over. Santa isn’t real and reindeer can’t fly. There’s no going back to the days of excitement and anticipation, as fun as they might have been, leaving cookies and a glass of milk out on Christmas Eve.
Once Mormonism had come apart in my hands, I naturally began to examine my stronger, if more nebulous, faith in Jesus Christ. The New Testament had always had some great lessons in forgiveness even if some of the epistles of Paul were way out there. Surely I could at least retain my faith in Jesus?
I think I discovered why so many ex-Mormons become agnostics or atheists. If you apply the same critical lens to Christianity, there isn’t a lot left. Was there a historical Jesus? Probably, but we don’t have any definitive statements of his, just internally inconsistent records made scores of years after his death. Few books in the Bible were actually written by the people they claim, and what books were included were gathered arbitrarily. How can you have faith in a Bible that is so random? I want to be a Christian, but I just don’t see how we can reconcile the haphazard way the Bible came together with a God who cares that we follow its garbled message
I find great comfort in the gospel of Jesus Christ as it is recorded in the New Testament, though I suspect that it is just a nice story. It’s still a great and admirable way to live your life. I want my kids to know this and be like Jesus Christ, whether or not he was a real person. But I want them to have that and none of the modern accoutrements of Christianity, like intolerance, close-mindedness, or clannishness.
Is there anything after this life? I doubt it, but I am too terrified to think about it much. I only know that this life is too short to waste massive amounts of time on something that doesn’t make you happy, something that only makes you feel inadequate and guilty. Are we laying our treasures up in heaven or are we immolating ourselves on a bonfire of self-hatred?
God is love. I don’t know if God actually exists, but if he does, I know he loves us all. Homosexuals, African-Americans, ex-Mormons, and women. He wants us all to be happy. And I refuse to believe in a God who created us to hate ourselves. If that damns me to hell, so be it.
I’ll have a lot of good company there, though I doubt it exists.