Why I Am Still a Member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
As a fairly reflective and rational person, I often have occasion to examine the important choices I’ve made in my life. Most of them are pretty easy to understand and explain: going to college, marrying the person I did, becoming a librarian, having a few kids – none of these is a choice likely to raise anyone’s eyebrows. I know, however, that what I consider the most important choice of my life is one that many find strange, for reasons that I completely understand. Having spent my career in an academic environment, where this particular choice can seem especially questionable, I’ve found that some of my colleagues in the past have been mildly incredulous, while others, I sense, are puzzled but politely avoid the issue. Some of the latter are probably fearful of what I’d say if they asked.
I’m referring to my choice to remain a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I say “to remain a member” because there’s no mystery as to why I started out as one. Although I grew up in Massachusetts at a time when Latter-day Saints were relatively thin on the ground in that region, I was born into an active Latter-day Saint family and was raised in the Church. My family went to church every week and we participated in all the normal church activities: we prayed and studied scriptures together daily; we held weekly family home evenings; my father and I were home teaching companions; I attended early-morning seminary throughout high school. So it’s easy to understand why I was a Latter-day Saint kid – really, I had little choice. The restored gospel was inculcated into me from my earliest years, and I never understood it as one of several legitimate lifestyle options. It was the truth, and its truthfulness informed everything about the way life was lived in my home.
I’ve heard it said that you can’t choose your family or your religion, and to some degree I suspect that’s true. However, there have been several points at which I’ve had to make deliberate and conscious choices about my spiritual life – about whether I actually believe, first of all, that there is any such thing as a “spiritual life” at all and, if so, what it really means to pursue it.1
At the moments in my younger life when I needed to decide what I believed and how I should live, the questions I was addressing – though I couldn’t have put them into these exact words – were the following:
- Is there a God who is real and exists outside of the natural order?
- If so, does The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teach accurately about God’s attributes and expectations for us?
- If so, do the Church’s doctrines, covenants, and practices constitute a set of uniquely true principles and put forward a uniquelytrue and necessary set of prescriptions for living – or do they only represent one valid set of spiritual options among many?
When I was a child, like most children, I accepted what my parents told me about these issues, because a) my parents seemed to know everything and b) they clearly wanted what was best for me. And like most young adults, I eventually came to question the things they taught me. Not just once, but in an ongoing and recurring pattern throughout my life, one that I think is normal, essentially healthy, and likely to continue indefinitely.
The first time I remember seriously questioning my religious beliefs was when I was in the Missionary Training Center preparing to leave on a two-year proselyting mission for the Church. My concern wasn’t with any particular points of doctrine; I just came to the sudden and sharp realization that although I had gone through my life up to that point operating fairly comfortably on the assumption that God was real and that the Latter-day Saint conception of God was accurate, I had never come to a truly independent conviction that those propositions were true. I had accepted that they were true and had more-or-less willingly (if very imperfectly) structured my life around that acceptance, but as I was preparing to actually spend two full years of my life testifying actively to their truthfulness I came to the belated realization that willing acquiescence to the doctrine probably wasn’t going to be enough to make me an effective missionary.
I should point out, though, that being an effective missionary really wasn’t my primary concern at that point—my concern was about being a missionary at all. To be completely honest, I had actually been dreading my mission. Throughout childhood and adolescence I had anticipated it strictly as an interruption, a wall I was going to have to climb over before I could get on with the real business of my life, which I saw as going to school and pursuing my career goals and getting married and raising a family. As it is for all new missionaries, the transition into missionary service was wrenching for me. When I departed for the MTC I left a girlfriend behind whom I missed very much. I found the scriptures boring – not especially baffling or hard to believe, just generally uninteresting. I’m an introvert by nature and have always cherished having time alone, and I knew that a mission would require me to be in someone else’s close presence nearly around the clock. I loved books and was obsessed with music, and knew that as a missionary I’d have to give up most of my favorite music and all of what I most enjoyed reading. But most of all, there was nowhere in my personality a natural inclination to knock on strangers’ doors and offer to talk to them about my religion – I knew that in most cases it would be annoying to them, and that few if any would have any interest in hearing what I had to say. I fully expected that proselyting would be embarrassing and at times humiliating, and that the vast majority of the people I’d encounter would think I was a deluded fool at best and an irritating zealot at worst. Apart from my natural shyness, my pride and intellectual vanity made (and still make) the prospect of being seen in either light very painful.
To be clear, it wasn’t that I felt missionary work was in any way a bad idea; I understood what it was about the gospel that made such work good and necessary, and I knew why I needed to do it, and truly, I was willing. But I expected it to be difficult in particular ways that were especially painful for me, and I was not looking forward to it.
It was in the context of these feelings that I realized I had to have a firmer and more independent knowledge of the truthfulness of the gospel if I were going to go forward and complete my missionary service. I needed to make a binary decision: either continue on that path or go home. To make that decision, I needed to know whether the gospel was true. I knew that if I gained that knowledge, I could do what needed to be done even if it was difficult or embarrassing. But I also knew that without it, I probably couldn’t.
I had felt what I understood to be the influence of the Holy Ghost at various times in my childhood and adolescence, and I think that I already had a fairly good understanding of the difference between emotional and spiritual feelings, so I was pretty well prepared to ask the question that I asked on my knees one evening at bedtime in the MTC. I must not have been alone in the room, since it housed four of us and we were never left alone. But it seems in my memory as if I were alone when I knelt down and made a very simple and straightforward prayer. It was along these lines: “Heavenly Father, if you are there, and if what I’m about to do is in fact what’s right and required of me, please let me know now. Because I have to know; otherwise I’m going to go home and pick up my life where it left off.”
I received an answer to my prayer. It came promptly, and it came powerfully enough that there was no question in my mind as to its origin or its message. It was clear to me that it originated outside of myself. Although I was not a very spiritually mature person, I had already learned from experience to recognize the difference between the somatic, chemicals-in-the-stomach sensations of emotion and the fundamentally different feelings that came from the Holy Ghost. What I felt was spiritual, and the message was clear: God told me that he was there, that he loved me, and that I should continue on the path on which I had set out.
This is the point at which I fully expect to lose the attention of anyone who is firmly committed to a naturalistic worldview. Someone who has already dismissed the idea of a spiritual realm will read the above and say “You only think you discern the difference between emotional and spiritual feelings. In fact, what you’re experiencing are just different flavors of emotion.” It’s a perfectly reasonable response, and one to which I’ve given a lot of thought. But the more I think about it, the more I bump up against something I really can’t deny: the fact that the feelings I experience when dealing with matters of an eternal nature are in fact different from the feelings that I have when dealing with anything else—and not subtly different, but radically. They don’t carry with them the baggage or the side effects of physical emotion: rarely do they make me cry; they never leave me with a feeling of catharsis; they never raise my level of physical excitement; I don’t feel them in my stomach, the way I do anxiety or anticipation or desire; and most significantly, unlike feelings of emotional excitement they don’t come in response to a wide variety of stimuli. Spiritual feelings come only when dealing with spiritual things, and they always somehow push away emotional noise rather than add to it.
Having these feelings and impressions has taught me what I think is a valuable lesson about the nature of evidence and testimony. When dealing scientifically with the physical world, evidence only counts if it can be shared and replicated. When dealing with the spiritual world, evidence is generally private and not shareable – and though it may in a certain way be replicated, what is replicated ends up being equally private and personal to the person who experiences it. In other words, my spiritual experiences can’t prove to anyone else the existence of a spiritual world. I suppose that in the strictest philosophical sense, they can’t really “prove” it to me, either. (I could always find some way, however far-fetched, to explain away my spiritual experiences. Even a direct angelic visitation, like any other experience, could at some point be explained away as a hallucination.) But while they can’t give me proof, they most certainly can give me evidence – private, unshareable evidence, but nevertheless real enough for me to work with in my own life. And this, I’ve come to believe, is the essence of faith: faith isn’t just picking something to believe in and then proceeding with your life on the assumption that it’s true. (It’s not, in other words, just “belief combined with action.”) Faith consists in gathering spiritual evidence and then putting it to an empirical test. You start with a little bit of belief and you apply it, watching the results; as you do so you learn something about the rightness or wrongness of that belief and are simultaneously equipped to gather more evidence. Over time, you build a structure of faith that becomes stronger as its foundation is deepened and thickened by the accumulation of evidence and experience. This process may not be “scientific,” but it is certainly empirical. It is what I believe the prophet Alma describes in the Book of Mormon.2
What this means, I think, is that faith and reason are inseparable. Contrary to what has been argued by some prominent professional atheists, faith doesn’t mean belief despite a lack of evidence; faith is a result of the gathering and testing of evidence. Reason is what allows me to recognize the connection between, for example, hearing someone bear testimony of the reality of Christ’s atonement, and feeling a powerful spiritual response to that expression of testimony. Without reason, I wouldn’t see any connection between the expression and the response, and I wouldn’t be able to recognize the unfolding pattern of connections between similar experiences and similar responses throughout my life.
That said, I suspect that few of us will ever have experiences that are explicit, powerful, and direct enough to let us suspend faith altogether. The evidence will always be partial – it will always be at least theoretically possible to conjure up an alternative explanation for any particular miraculous experience or internal spiritual prompting. Thus, to me, putting faith into practice means:
- Accepting, at least provisionally, that spiritual experiences are what they seem to be;
- moving forward on the basis of that acceptance, altering my behavior as appropriate;
- seeking out more such experiences;
- watching, thinking, and praying about what happens next.
As I have pursued this course of action, I’ve found that I continue to have just enough of these experiences to keep me going. And again, although this approach requires me to move forward with incomplete evidence, at the same time it seems fundamentally rational to me. My spiritual life is a house of experiential, and partly intellectual, inquiry built on a foundation of trust – trust that the things that powerfully seem spiritual to me really are. This trust keeps being rewarded, usually in subtle and gentle but very often undeniable and sometimes overwhelmingly powerful ways, and always in ways that are very clearly different to me from my experiences with physical emotion. For that reason, I’m able to keep feeling my way forward with a real degree of confidence, even though my actual knowledge is partial and in some ways contingent.
When I got up off my knees from that prayer in the MTC, I knew both that I must and that I could carry on and serve a mission. That knowledge didn’t make it any easier, however. My mission was difficult in exactly the ways I thought it would be, and at times the difficulty was excruciating. There were moments when I had to force myself almost physically to do the things that were required. On my second day in the mission field, my companion thought it would be a good idea for us to go to a large urban park and split up – staying in sight of each other, but stopping people and talking to them on our own. After he walked away I had to sit on a park bench and gather my strength. The thought of accosting someone walking by on the path and trying to engage him or her in a discussion about the gospel made me want to run away screaming. But by this point I had confidence in several propositions: God was real and loved me, and God wanted me to be in a park talking to people about the gospel. The gospel was true, and since the gospel was true, it was important enough to be worth annoying people over. So as painful as it would be for me, I knew I needed to do it and I would. And I did. And it was indeed painful, and awkward, and at times embarrassing. But I had a wonderful conversation in that park with a sincere young man, and had the opportunity to bear testimony to him.
My mission was a magnificent, grueling, life-changing experience. I was a good missionary. I wasn’t as effective as some others, though I was more effective than some; I was consistently obedient and diligent, and I had some exquisite experiences in parks and in meetinghouses and in small, shabby rooms with people of varying backgrounds who desired, in varying degrees, to come unto Christ. When my companions and I taught doctrine and bore testimony, I felt my soul vibrate in response as the Holy Ghost bore witness to the truthfulness of what we said, and I watched the eyes of those we taught as they felt the same thing. Seeing others, who came to these discussions without a lifetime’s acculturation in the Church, feel something that was very obviously much the same as what I was feeling deepened my conviction that what we were teaching was real and true and that what I was feeling came from something external to my own mind. In those moments, spiritual evidence truly was shared between us, though not in any way that could be documented, measured, or captured for future examination by others.
When my mission came to an end, I was able to look back on it with joy and satisfaction, despite the flaws in my preparation and some of the rather stupid things that, in retrospect, I could see I had done. I felt (and still feel) confident that my sacrifice was accepted, and, much more importantly, that my missionary service was a life-changing blessing to some people, and perhaps to many others of whom I’m not aware.
Completing a mission did not mark the resolution of my spiritual struggle or the culmination of my testimony building. Instead, as my mission president promised it would, it laid the foundation of a spiritual house upon which I’ve worked to build ever since. In doing so I’ve had tremendous, even transcendent, spiritual experiences, as well as moments of serious doubt and crisis.
Those experiences have taught me several things. The most important of them, I think, is that a testimony – an abiding conviction of the truthfulness of the restored gospel – is a fragile thing. This is surely as it must be, though it may sound strange to say that. A typical response of the unbeliever to a believer’s expression of faith is to ask “If God exists, and if he wants you to do his will, why does he make it hard to find him and make communication with him so much a matter of intuition and interpretation?” This is a fair question, and it takes its place alongside all the other fair questions about God: if God is both real and good, how can his creation include so much that is evil? Why does God allow so much tragedy and pain, if he actually does love us and want what’s best for us? Why do so many who claim to represent God on earth turn out to be corrupt, craven, and foolish?
One reasonable, though facile, response to all of these questions is that God wants us to grow and that we grow in part by striving after him, by suffering, and by making choices – some of which will be bad and some of which will necessarily impinge on others. But I think there is a deeper answer as well, and it’s implied in the questions themselves. To object to the existence of God on the basis of the difficulty of knowing him or the awfulness of our lot is to imply necessarily that if there were a God such as the one described in Latter-day Saint doctrine, our lives and our world would be substantially different. For that implied argument to have any weight, one should be able to answer the question “How would life be different if there were a God?” In other words, how much suffering is allowable before we decide that God can’t exist?
In order to be taken seriously, the answer to this question doesn’t have to be precise, but it should at least have some shape and weight. Does the Holocaust disprove the existence of God? The World Trade Center attack? The Darfur genocide? Suppose that none of those, and nothing close to them in severity and brutality, had ever occurred – would skeptics be more inclined to believe in God, or would the bar simply be set at a different level?
I think this brings us back to the more facile explanation: rationally, I think that even horrific tragedy and injustice – for all of the questions and concerns that they will raise in the minds of thoughtful believers – can and probably must exist in a God-created world where the primary purpose of life is not comfort, pleasure, long life, or even the avoidance of awful suffering, but rather growth and development through hard experience and the exercise of agency. Sometimes answers are facile because they’re false and easy; sometimes they seem facile because they’re both simple and true. I think this is one of those.
Another thing I have learned is to recognize and respect my own intellectual limitations. One of those limitations is a deep and intractable impatience. I jump to conclusions too quickly, assuming that I’ve gathered all the evidence I need for a decision when in fact I should wait and gather more. I keep having to learn that lesson over and over, a fact that leads me to suspect this to be an ingrained problem of my personality rather than just a bad intellectual habit. Having recognized this tendency, I’ve learned generally to stay away from anti-Latter-day-Saint literature. I have at times found myself shaken by something negative or critical I’ve read or heard, only later (sometimes much later) to find out that what I read was unfounded or that there was far more to the story than what the critic had reported. No matter how many times I go through that process, I still struggle fully to learn the lesson it should be teaching me.
So now I generally avoid critical literature, though not without some misgivings. I realize there’s a certain kind of danger in ignoring the critics: growth requires opposition, and to actively cultivate ignorance of opposition is to risk becoming soft and complacent. Nor is it healthy to pretend that there are no legitimate questions about the doctrines of the restored gospel, the foibles of Church leaders, or Church history. A real testimony, it seems to me, has to acknowledge and deal with those issues, not pretend they aren’t there. But it matters how one approaches them, and I have learned to do so in a way that takes into account my own particular blend of weaknesses and strengths.
And again, this seems to me a reasonable state of affairs. A loving God who wants us to grow and learn can reasonably be expected, I think, to put his children in situations where their faith will be challenged. A true church, even one led by real revelation under divine authority, can also be expected to be administered on earth by people who have faults and failings, and who present a mixture of strengths and weaknesses. To those who say (or, more frequently, imply) “Your church can’t be true because Apostle So-and-So demonstrated clear hypocrisy in such-and-such a situation,” I respond, “If the Church were true, how much more perfect would its leaders be?”
To sum up, then: I am still a Latter-day Saint because I have learned, through hard spiritual experience, that the restored gospel is what it purports to be. And I continue learning that lesson in an ongoing way as I continue living the life of a covenant disciple of Christ.
1To be clear about what I mean by “spiritual”: As much as I respect the beliefs of others, I have to confess that when people talk about the “spiritual” from a naturalistic perspective, the word seems pretty empty to me. If you believe only in the existence of the natural world – the material, physically perceivable, measurable world – then I don’t see how you can give the word “spiritual” a lot of real meaning without radically redefining it. So when I refer to a “spiritual life” I mean something that has reference to a reality beyond the natural world. Philosophers use the word “supernatural” to refer to that reality. In this sense, the word “supernatural” doesn’t have the woo-woo connotations that it does in casual language. When most people say they believe in God, they’re saying that they believe in a supernatural order – in something real that exists beyond the natural world that we perceive and measure with our bodily senses. When I talk about questioning the existence of a spiritual realm, it’s the supernatural order, that “world beyond,” that I’m talking about. (For now let’s leave aside the implications of Joseph Smith’s teachings about the physical properties of the soul and the inseparability of the temporal and the spiritual.)
Rick Anderson is University Librarian at Brigham Young University. Previously, he served as Associate Dean for Collections and Scholarly Communication in the J. Willard Marriott Library of the University of Utah (2007-2020); as Director of Resource Acquisition (2001-2007) and Electronic Resources and Serials Coordinator (2000-2001) at the University of Nevada, Reno; as Head Acquisitions Librarian at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro (1997-2000); and as a bibliographer for Yankee Book Peddler, Inc. (1993-1997). He earned the degrees of Bachelor of Science (1991) and Master of Library and Information Science (1993) from Brigham Young University.
Rick is the author of three books, most recently Scholarly Communication: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2018), which is currently being translated into both Japanese and Chinese. He has also written numerous articles and reviews in such periodicals as Library Journal; Publishers Weekly; EDUCAUSE Review; Information Services & Use; Against the Grain; Serials; College & Research Libraries News; Learned Publishing; Serials Librarian; Internet Reference Services Quarterly; Library Collections, Acquisitions, and Technical Services; Acquisitions Librarian; Serials e-News; Notes (the quarterly journal of the Music Library Association); The Charleston Advisor; Reference and User Services Quarterly; NextSpace: The OCLC Newsletter; Music Reference Services Quarterly; and Portal: Libraries and the Academy. In 2013 Rick was the recipient of the HARRASSOWITZ Leadership in Library Acquisitions Award and was the Gould Distinguished Lecturer on Technology and the Quality of Life at the University of Utah. He has served as president of NASIG and of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, and is a regular contributor to the Scholarly Kitchen blog.
Posted October 2010
Updated March 2022