Many of the highly-promoted interpretations of LDS doctrines are divisive, shame-inducing, and thought-stopping in nature, as I’ve described in my book, Recovering Agency.
But what if there is a more loving, inclusive, mind-freeing, self-actualizing way to interpret some of those same doctrines that increases free agency rather than restricts it? Wouldn’t such an interpretation be more in line with the overall message of Jesus?
I wasn’t asking this question when I returned to Church this month after 15 years as an exmormon. But because I can now think about the doctrine differently than I’d originally been taught, not only was this answered in the affirmative, but I felt the Spirit to confirm it.
Yes, an atheist felt the Spirit. Don’t worry; I’ll explain.
Let the Holy Spirit Guide
In my book, I tackle Mormon doctrines that manipulate the emotions of members and eliminate flexibility of thought. Through writing and study, I’ve seen behind the curtain at how the illusions are performed. I’ve unframed the frame set for me by the LDS leadership, which leaves me free to build my own frames and hear my inner voice.
The Spirit is an unseen “Holy Ghost,” a bodiless member of the Godhead who inspires baptized members of the LDS Church mostly via feelings, but also promptings, dreams, and visions. The feeling is described many ways – usually members are on the lookout for “warm and fuzzy,” “burning in the bosom,” “comfort,” or “peaceful.” The Spirit prompts people to be moral, do what is right, perform good works, follow the commandments, and keep their minds on the things of God.
(There’s also a thing called “The Light of Christ,” which is the feeling just like the Spirit that is given to those who are not baptized as Mormons. It’s a distinction without significant difference, so for the sake of this post, I’m going to just refer to both as “the Spirit” as if it’s all the same thing.)
Recovering Agency offers many examples of how everyday human emotions are reframed to be interpreted as the Spirit. These include:
- Love and affection
- Feeling loved or accepted
- Reverence or awe
- The sense of “doing the right thing” (integrity)
- Epiphany (the ah-ha of a powerful new idea)
- Cognitive consonance
- Sense of community
I’ve heard others describe their profound confusion when they felt the Spirit while watching action movies or reading novels. Just last Sunday in Church, one of the speakers said she doesn’t feel the Spirit when praying, but she does when meditating, hiking in the mountains, or working at her job in the arts field. And people who have never even heard of Mormonism or Jesus Christ describe experiencing these feelings as part of their own religion, or just for being alive.
It might be more accurate to think of the Spirit as collection of typical emotions that have been reframed to direct us into compliance with LDS leaders. We’re taught that if a feeling leads us away from the instructions of the Prophet and General Authorities, then the feeling isn’t really the Spirit, but a counterfeit. Moreover, you’d best follow those commandments, or else the Spirit will flee, because the Spirit conveniently cannot tolerate the presence of sin, where “sin” is anything that goes against the teachings of the Church.
So basically, any good feeling that leads you to obey the leaders is the Spirit, and any good feeling that leads you away from obeying the leaders is just a human emotion. Or worse: temptation.
These are all just frames, ways of looking at reality. Leaders who present this reality co-opt the voice of God, directing the faithful into a very narrow view of the world.
But reality is what it is, regardless of frames, and emotions are what they are. When we unframe the reframe, we have freedom to examine new frames. Based on the evidence and my own experiences, I can’t accept a reality where LDS leaders are the sole spokesmen of God. I don’t believe that any earthly organization has a monopoly on authority or truth.
What can we learn about the Spirit if we remove obedience and “demand for purity“? Is it possible that one of the most emotionally manipulative and shaming teachings of the Church, when interpreted differently, is actually the most accepting and loving?
Let Him Teach Us What Is True
I’m an atheist. I don’t believe in ghosts, holy or otherwise. All the feelings I listed above are surely human experiences, leading people to walk many different spiritual paths which are as diverse as the sand on the sea. Therefore, the Spirit can’t be a single being delivering the exact same truth to all men. Elsewise, wouldn’t all people come to the same conclusions?
I see the Spirit as a package of these positive feelings, rather than a real being that supports and promotes the cause of the LDS Church. To me, it’s just another way of describing the inspiration and closeness that comes to us all. I can’t see it any other way. You, of course, walk your own path and should believe what feels right to you; but this is my reality. For the sake of this argument, it doesn’t really matter if the Holy Ghost is a real being or not.
What about worthiness? The teaching that “sin” makes us unworthy to feel the Spirit is part of the “demand for purity” control tactic, which establishes an impossibly high standard that places followers in a toxic cycle of perfectionism, emotional dependence, shame, and self-blame. In theory, if I were to have impure thoughts, drink a coffee or beer, have extramarital sex, disagree with scriptures, or stray from “the gospel” as it is defined by the LDS Correlation Committee, then I’d be unworthy to feel the Spirit.
But if this were true, then how did I feel the Spirit my first Sunday back, when I’d spent the day before among my godless geek hippie poly friends, tasting exotic liqueurs and homemake infusions, freely discussing all topics available to us (like sex and *gasp* philosophy), cuddling with my girlfriend (yes, girlfriend girlfriend), sharing my woes about a recent and traumatic breakup, and basking in love and acceptance in a home designed with the intention to be a healing space? Further, how did I feel the Spirit while among these friends doing these things?
How do I feel the Spirit when I have many years of unrepentant sexual activity and believe with conviction that responsible, consensual sex can be a positive, spiritual experience?
How do I feel the Spirit while listening to Buddhist podcasts or practicing paganism? (Isn’t “witchcraft” supposed to be of Satan?”)
Moreover, I felt the Spirit quite strongly while writing Recovering Agency, which is critical of the LDS leadership and which many good Mormons would consider downright “anti-Mormon.” And how is it that I feel the Spirit while writing this post that directly challenges the current LDS positions on doctrine?
I’m not supposed to feel God’s vote of approval when I’m speaking against God’s chosen mouthpieces, am I?
In light of my own life experiences and the reports of others, I can come to only one conclusion: worthiness to feel the Spirit is not contingent upon the standards of worthiness set forth by the Church. At least not for me. At least not for billions of other people who live on earth.
But perhaps worthiness is contingent upon something else.
A Detoxifying Re-reframe of Worthiness and Sin
Here’s where it gets exciting. When you remove the demand for purity… when you trust each member to decide their own spiritual path for themselves… when you allow members to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience (11th Article of Faith)… this doctrine transforms into a beacon of love, acceptance, self-actualization, and ultimately, of freedom.
The more I walk my own path and I live authentically to my own spirit, the more I feel these emotions. When I’m living according to “truth” (as I see truth) the more open I am to feeling the Spirit.
Conversely, when I go against my inner voice, my access to this set of feelings becomes limited, choked off by my denials of internal self and external reality.
Likewise, if I feel rejected, I cannot feel the Spirit. If I feel shame, I cannot feel the Spirit. If I feel angry, I cannot feel the Spirit. These uncomfortable feelings push out any sense of integrity or love.
Buddhism teaches this. You cannot feel compassion if your heart is full of self-loathing or fear or anger. This is not a judgmental statement, as it might be in the frame of the LDS admonition to “bridle your passions.” No, it’s just a fact, cause and effect.
How are Buddhists instructed to deal with these uncomfortable emotions?
Accept them. Sit with them. Let the feeling sit with you. Don’t fight it, because fighting it will only lodge it there longer. If you are angry, let yourself feel angry. Let the thoughts flow through your mind and acknowledge them. If there is something you can do about the anger, such as change your situation or stand up for yourself, do so. And if not, just try to accept reality. Accept that all feelings are temporary. “This too shall pass.” (These techniques are also recommended by psychologists.)
And through these methods, you will come back around to self-acceptance, peace, serenity, and compassion. Also known as “the Spirit.”
We can remove the shaming demand for purity one step further. The Bible tells us that everything has a time and season (Ecclesiastes 3). If our goal is to feel the Spirit all the time, we will fail. Even positive feelings are temporary. We are not meant to feel love and joy all the time.
Therefore, worthiness to feel the Spirit is simply about nurturing the set of conditions that leave us open to these feelings. But if we’re not there, that doesn’t make us bad. It just makes us human. There are times when of course we’re going to feel angry, depressed, sad, ashamed, grief-stricken, or guilty. It’s healthy.
Like worthiness, “sin” can be re-reframed as anything that artificially drives away these sought-after feelings. Any action I commit that denies my inner truth is “sin” because it drives away “the Spirit.” To avoid sin, I “choose the right” by following my inner voice and trusting in myself. This is “integrity,” or being “integrated”; all of my inner workings and outer actions are in line with one another.
Likewise, “doubt” can be re-reframed as doubting the path that your voice is guiding you along. Some doubt is good because your voice is not 100% reliable, but when the doubt is coming from outsiders who can’t hear your inner voice (or have their own motives to ignore your needs), doubt becomes personally harmful and, you guessed it, drives away the Spirit.
Those who devalue me or judge me when I act authentically ignite defensiveness or shame. There is no room in anyone’s heart for belongingness when their perceptions are being denied, when their heartfelt choices are deemed “sinful,” or when they’re are being pressured to conform in a way that does not feel right.
The Church teaches us to avoid these people when they’re leading us away from the Church, but the same damage is done by those in the Church who pressure us to comply with their understanding of truth. Ironically, the Church’s controlling interpretation of the Holy Ghost drives away the Spirit for anyone who must repress their own inner voice in order to obey someone else’s rigid rules.
If there is a God, he made us so that we cannot simultaneously feel shame and peace. For many of us, our inner voices run counter to the current interpretation of LDS doctrines. Did God design me to feel depressed and broken (withdrawal of the Spirit) when am obeying his ordained leaders or ancient commandments? Did he design me to feel serenity, comfort, and integrity (aka the Spirit) when I’m doing things not in line with those commandments or leaders?
I’ve since learned that I’m not the one who is broken. It’s not God’s (or evolution’s) design that is flawed. The flaw lies in the currently promoted interpretation of “worthiness.”
If there is a benevolent God, all of our inner voices speak different messages for a purpose. When we follow this “still small voice,” we will find happiness. When we follow contradictory external voices, even LDS leaders, we will lose the Spirit.
In LDS contexts, we often hear phrases like, “The Spirit is with us today.” Before I left the Church, I could rarely feel the Spirit when everyone else seemed to be, which only made me feel deficient. Now I can clearly see that I was trying to walk someone else’s path, rather than following my own voice.
But there are things a community can do to promote these feelings of belonging and joy for all those present. One of the hymns we sang my first Sunday back was, “O God the Eternal Father,” which has this line: “[That we may] always have his Spirit to make our hearts as one.”
I know from my study of social psychology that people in groups have great power to amplify and harmonize emotions. Whether it’s an angry mob or a swaying crowd at a concert, our hearts can synchronize, and in this way, we can bring a spirit of peace and compassion to a room full of people, even for those who enter feeling sorrowful, alone, or excluded. This ought to be the goal of any group that purports to value love. Especially for a group that cites love as its two greatest commandments.
When we accept others for who they are, without judgement or defensiveness, we not only allow ourselves to feel more of these feelings, but we give our friends room to be authentic and to feel loved for who they really are.
If we are judgmental, say of people who choose to drink coffee, or who don’t believe in the power of prayer, who don’t have testimonies, or those who don’t fit into strict gender roles, then we are driving the Spirit away from them.
In this new kind of ward, I spoke openly about who I am and what I believe, and those I talked to didn’t even flinch. They shared with me and welcomed me in a genuinely accepting and non-shaming way. I didn’t feel like they were trying to change me.
Never before within the walls of an LDS meetinghouse have I felt the Spirit like that. Not because I am “worthy” through keeping the commandments, but because, even when my conscience differed from those around me, I was still accepted. This allowed me to feel certain senses associated with the Spirit – like affection and belonging.
This is the true definition of unconditional love. If we love a person not for who they are but for who we wish them to be, then we’ve established conditions. Unconditional love is to accept a person for who they actually are. To do that, we must know who they are. They must feel safe enough to express their truths without shame or scrutiny.
This seems counterintuitive because of what the Church has taught us. We are taught there is only one way, one narrow standard of perfection that we are all working towards. In the Celestial Kingdom we will all be little perfect clones of one another, dressed in white and on our way to be clone gods of clone universes.
This makes no sense and it’s insulting to God’s intelligence. What is the point of creating billions of souls who will progress for eternity if not for the diversity?
The Church’s high standards of institutionally-defined purity drives away the Spirit for anyone who doesn’t fit the mold. Moreso when the ward community enforces those standards with suspicious glances, condescending comments, wardrobe corrections, and yes, calls to repentance from the pulpit. This fills all of us square pegs with anti-Spirit feelings. Guilt and anxiety for just thinking our thoughts, having normal human feelings, and behaving in normal human ways.
When members are threatened with loss of blessings for not walking in lockstep with the group, it’s only logical that all of those feelings we associate with the Spirit will flee.
I think back to all the stories Christ told, and there is a theme to many of them. I wonder: if 99 ward members feel the Spirit in Sacrament meeting, and one does not, can the Spirit be said to be present? If one sister sits in the pew feeling bad about herself, or ashamed for not measuring up, or like she doesn’t belong, what you have are 99 people who feel good about themselves, but but the group itself is devoid of the Spirit.
When we bomb this sister with additional demands for perfection, more evidence for how she is unclean for having doubts or unspoken sins, we’re pushing the Spirit out of God’s house. You might feel it, but if it’s at her expense, what’s the point?
If the Spirit is about love and compassion, then we ought to be our sister’s keeper. We ought to accept everyone, without judgment, without forcing our beliefs onto them, without trying to cram them into our (aka the Church’s) narrow mold, and without making them feel like they have to lie or pretend in order to benefit from the love that a community has to offer.
My first twenty-six years of life, I attended Church as a less-than-authentic version of myself. I pretended in many ways. And I rarely felt the Spirit there.
Twice now I’ve been to Church as an authentic version of me. I told several people that I was LGBT and that I did not believe in God. They listened, and kept on smiling genuine smiles, and stayed interested and invited me to events, offered to connect me with other LGBT members, and didn’t tell me I was wrong. They complimented my tattoo and even my less-than-modest shirt.
They nurtured the Spirit in me and in that chapel. They’ve created a safe space.
Last week in Sacrament meeting, while I was thinking about writing this post, a sister synchronistically spoke on the Spirit. And she, too, was authentic. And she called the Elliot Bay Ward a safe space. She openly expressed her struggle with doubt and anger at the Spirit and her frustration about rarely feeling inspired during prayer. Her story mirrored the struggles I had a year before I left the Church, but I never felt safe enough to voice them aloud.
She suggested alternatives to prayer which inspire the Spirit in her. (Incidentally, these work better for me, too.)
- Meditation and mindfulness. She quoted Mother Theresa on inner silence.
- Worship (she quoted a Thomas Aquinas definition of worship I could relate to, which spoke of openness to wonder and love.)
- Expression and creation. She feels the Spirit when working at her job in the arts.
- Nature. She feels closest to God in the mountains. She said if you can’t get out of bed on Sunday to go to Church, go on a hike instead.
The Spirit of the Correlation Committee was definitely not present. To my surprise, no one booed her or ushered her away from the mic. That’s because in this particular house of God, people are more important than leaders or strict interpretation of doctrine.
Contention is Not of Me
This brings to mind another highly-manipulative LDS teaching: that contention is of the devil. This is used to keep members from questioning or expressing doubts or criticisms of the leaders or the doctrine.
Yet here we had a woman openly expressing her doubts. I’m sure every single member of that congregation could relate to her. Her vulnerability brought us closer together in love. We are all human beings, not a pack of spiritual giants versus a bunch of unclean outcasts.
So here is a miraculous and beautiful new frame for the doctrine of contention:
Imagine a church where anyone could stand up in Relief Society and say what she really believes and thinks. Maybe it’s in conflict with the leadership or the prophet. Maybe it goes against the scriptures. Maybe she’s the only one in the room who thinks it. But it’s her sincere personal belief, and she centers that belief on herself. It’s not accusatory or blamey or shamey, and she’s not trying to make anyone else believe this thing.
Then let’s say the other sisters genuinely listen, consider her words, and thank her for her perspective.
Then let’s say another sister gets up and expresses a very different, even opposite, opinion. And her personal beliefs are also accepted with love.
There is no contention in this room. No one is “contending one with another in anger.” This is an atmosphere of joy and celebration and validation of the unique and beautiful perspectives of a room full of friends. No one has to hide or repress her doubts, keep her weird speculations to herself, secret away her depression or mental health issues, or deny her troubles with Joseph Smith’s behavior. No one has to pretend to know that Jesus died for our sins or that the Church is led by a living prophet.
Hiding these thoughts is itself contentious: it is contention within one’s own self, which removes a sense of personal integrity and drives away the Spirit.
We learn of contention in the Book of Mormon:
“…he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.
“Behold, this is not my doctrine, to stir up the hearts of men with anger, one against another; but this is my doctrine, that such things should be done away.” (3 Nephi 11:29-30)
This passage says nothing about contending with the teachings or having opinions counter to scripture or disagreeing with leaders. This speaks of divisions between people. It speaks only to how we feel about one another.
Thus, the responsibility for avoiding contention is just as much on the listener to listen with gentleness, as it is upon the speaker, to speak their truth with gentleness.
When we judge our brothers and sisters for not walking in lockstep with the group, or for having doubts, or for “sinning” using our own yardstick as a measure, that is contention. Why are we ganging up on the lone voice crying in the wilderness? Isn’t the one who stands alone from the group the weakest or “least of these”?
“Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” (Matthew 25:40)
This post is my testimony of the Spirit. I feel it as strongly as any testimony born by anyone, and my witness is just as fervent. But this testimony is mine and mine alone. I’m not living on borrowed light, and you shouldn’t live on mine. You see, there are as many testimonies as there are people. If my words here don’t awaken something in you, then they’re not for you. Keep looking until you find something that rings consonant with your inner voice. Only then can you live by your light, and your light alone.
My vision of an inclusive, open-minded, accepting and loving Church appears to be doctrinal. When these doctrines are interpreted with a top-down, support-the-hierarchy frame, they become domineering and evil. When they’re taken from a bottom-up, grassroots perspective, they bring us together and fill the world with light.
This frame seems more in line with Christ’s teachings and his actions, when he repeatedly rebuked the traditionally-established priesthood (the Pharisees); who dissented against those who sought to retain power; who, (even as a child), argued with the rabbis; contended with those who defiled the temple; and who regularly associated with and reached out to those considered sinners.
We are instructed to follow Christ’s example. Christ did what he thought was right and felt the Spirit even “as a dove.” When we do what we know is right, we feel the Spirit. When we love one another (as he loved us, knowing us fully and accepting us whoever we are), we feel the Spirit as well.