Can We Choose Our Beliefs? Our Attitudes?

Some thirty years ago, I decided that I would choose to believe the Gospel as taught by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I had had no spiritual witness to impel me toward that choice, but it seemed to me no worse than the other possibilities that lay open before me, and better than many of them. It was very much a Pascal’s Wager moment. It seemed to me that the way Latter-day Saints live – healthy, wholesome, conscientious, family-oriented – would be a pleasant way to spend my years on earth. And if the promised rewards were forthcoming, I had no objection to spending eternity sealed to my family, and to my (at that time potential) spouse and children.

This choice meant giving credence to certain ideas: that there was a God; that Jesus Christ had died for the sins of the world; that the Book of Mormon was a valid historical document; that heavenly messengers come and deliver messages to human beings. I had no actual evidence to prove that these ideas were correct, but I also had no real evidence against them. It seemed like a choice I was free to make, either way, and so I chose in accordance with my upbringing and my inclinations.

I went along that way for some quarter of a century, doing the things my religion required of me, giving assent to the things that it taught. But I always knew that it was a choice, and never felt the sort of certainty that a lot of people seem to have.

I chose my beliefs, but did I choose my attitude toward those beliefs? Not consciously, of course, but there were things about my upbringing and my personality (nurture and nature!) that caused me to regard the whole notion of religious affiliation in a particular way. To wit:

I had been raised by parents who, although committed to living as Latter-day Saints, had a broad, universalist (small “u”) outlook on the world. There was never any discomfort, for instance, about the fact that my best friend in elementary school was a Presbyterian. Two of the guys I hung out most with in high school were a Jew and a Catholic. (I never dated either of them, but I was never advised not to.) My parents were not dogmatic in their devotion to the LDS gospel and, as a result, neither was I. One of the things I liked about Mormonism was the way it held out the possibility of Salvation (and, yes, even exaltation) to those who never embraced the gospel in this life.

So that’s the kind of Mormon girl I was: curious, questing, open to ideas from other sources. After college I spent a time working out (and justifying from the scriptures) an idea about how the line between the Church of the Lamb of God and the Great and Abominable Church (as mentioned in 1 Nephi) ran down the middle of all denominations, including ours, rather than cutting us off from all the rest. It was at about this same time that my bishop asked if I wanted to go on a mission. I didn’t. I didn’t share the vision, for instance, of seeing all the Eastern Orthodox churches in the world transformed into LDS meetinghouses, with a cultural hall built on the back. I wanted people to continue to worship God in different and interesting ways, in beautiful places.

Did I choose to look at Mormonism in this way? I don’t think so. But if I had thought of it as a choice, I think it’s what I would have chosen. It just seemed to me to be the right and reasonable approach. Perhaps I could have chosen to be more strict and dogmatic, but that never occurred to me.

Years went by – about a quarter of a century. My attitude toward the church remained one of cheerful compliance, but I never did experience anything I might call a “spiritual witness” that I was on the right path. Then my husband decided that he could no longer credit the church teachings, and didn’t want to be involved in it any longer. That was a blow, but I decided that it was not sufficient cause to endanger my marriage, and I would make the best of things.

But as time passed, I found that this change had made it easier for me to reexamine some of my own ideas and perceptions. Eventually I found that there were a lot of things that I could no longer choose to believe, no matter how much I wanted to. Most importantly, I could not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the unique Son of God, in a literal way, and that it was only through his atonement that the rest of us could be forgiven and return to God. That didn’t fit my experience of the world, or my understanding of what God should be like, and it didn’t make sense to me any more. As a result, most of the distinctive teachings of Mormonism became moot for me. The main difference this made in my attitude toward the church was that I began to see it as less central and more peripheral – as just another way of looking at the world and dealing with its complexities, rather than as humanity’s best hope.

A lot of people who change their minds about what kind of organization the church really is seem to become angry and embittered about having ever been involved in it, and focus a lot of energy on everything they can find that is bad about it. Maybe for some this is necessary for them, to separate themselves from something they had previously regarded as so important. In a lot of ways the church is an easy target – and it’s entertaining to mock things that seem pretty trivial when other people think they’re of surpassing importance.

But that wasn’t my way. And in fact, I find it painful to associate with people who find this to be an entertaining way to behave. One of the things I ultimately found off-putting about LDS teachings was the exclusiveness that set members apart from the rest of the world, and it seemed wrong to me to use that same sort of exclusiveness against the Latter-day Saints, even if they were the only ones so singled out. True, I tend to think of this as being virtuous and magnanimous on my part, but maybe it has more to do with the fact that I never experienced any real harm at the hands of the church or its members. Or maybe it’s because I knew, for most of my life, that I was living as a Mormon, not because people (including myself) kept telling me it was the only right way to live and be happy, but because it was what I had chosen to do.

And yet, I do believe that most people do have choices about they way they will view The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, even after they have decided that it is probably not God’s Kingdom on earth. A few see it as being composed of cynical exploiters at the top, who are only interested in controlling people’s lives and extracting the needed funds from them, and a bunch of pathetic victims at the bottom. Some see it as a fairly standard human institution, more intent on preserving itself than in actually meeting the needs of the ordinary members. Others see it as a mostly harmless group of people who are trying to do what they think is right, according to their own best understanding and experience. It’s pretty obvious which of these views I favor. But I also think that each of these approaches can be strengthened and reinforced by choosing the thoughts one thinks, and the attitudes of those one associates with and listens to.