Last year, my husband David and I walked into the magnificent Kunsthistoriches Museum of Art History in Vienna on a summer afternoon. We had only stood in the entry a few moments when David was overcome by emotion. As we ascended the main staircase, he wept, overwhelmed by the beauty of the building, and the treasures within. He needed several minutes to compose himself.
Now we’re not artists or highbrow art followers, not even frequent museum attendees. And David is not one to be overly sentimental—he has no tolerance for hippy nonsense. Rather, he can come across as tough and intimidating, an intellectual, crusty fellow with a thinly veiled undercurrent of anger, present since we first met.
Yet, if you get him near the ocean, on a Kauai mountaintop, at a poignant film, or talking about his love for his kids, his no-nonsense brown eyes start glistening and he goes silent. I’ll hear him breathe in deeply, and for a moment that internal tempest is stilled.
But David would likely tell you God has never spoken to him.
Those raised in the Mormon faith are taught that God speaks a very specific way to his human subjects. Connecting with God requires worthiness, faith, study, prayer, fasting, and the right question. This process will result in burning in the bosom, and often a sensed or heard voice. If this doesn’t happen for you, a wide range of explanations are offered, many of which focus on your own errors in executing the formula—lack of worthiness and faith, insufficient study, prayer or fasting, the wrong question, or the wrong timing.
When this narrow definition of divine communication doesn’t play out in our experience, we often start with self-condemnation—we did something wrong. But as our pain increases, and it seems we’ve done “all that we can do,” many of us end with the more frightening thought: God either won’t or can’t answer. As we suffer with confusion and doubt, we question this God who must witness our torment, yet is either indifferent, non-responsive, or absent all together. The skies become cold and empty to us.
This is especially true when it comes to a crisis of faith. We plead, fast, and pray for answers to our difficult questions about the truthfulness of the Mormon church. However, we are still left asking the Mormon God if Mormonism is true, and we expect he will answer the Mormon way. When that God doesn’t respond as Moroni promised, not only do we doubt what we’ve been taught, but we naturally begin to doubt the existence of God itself. Since we’ve been taught that feelings confirm facts, when we don’t feel those feelings, it follows for many that there are simply no facts to hold on to.
Doctrinally, the Mormon God is a fully conditional, contractual God—all his blessings are contingent upon obedience to specific laws. We as humans dictate what he can and can’t do for us. Much like a young child feels groundless when his parents aren’t in control, this causes us much pain and anxiety, as it appears our human imperfection trumps God’s power to help us and communicate with us. As Mormons, we may never have been introduced to the unconditional God, so when we fail to meet the conditions of the conditional God—God then fails us.
This is my theory on why post/ex-Mormons are said to be more likely to turn to atheism than those who leave other faiths. Mormonism limits and defines divine communication to a small checklist that many people simply do not experience. Only a few notes on our full spiritual piano are considered legitimate. As a result, the many other ways in which humans connect to the divine all over the planet—the vast spectrum of human experience, everyday senses, nature, art, music, movies, literature, relationships—simply “don’t count” for many Mormons when looking for divine interactions.
While all of heaven and nature sing, we hear silence.
My goal is not to make the case for God, but to suggest that those who let go of Mormonism consider letting go of Mormonism’s definition of what a divine connection looks and feels like. Rather, we can reclaim and expand the definition of spiritual experiences back to the full spectrum of beauty, truth and the full reality and complexity of our whole human experience.
In many ways, a Mormon upbringing can strip us of the God-given resources we have to understand the world around us—we learn to distrust the messages from our body, our perceptions, our intellects, our hearts, and our environments. These innate gifts that allow us to navigate and understand our lives are often feared, considered risky, carnal and worldly. Instead, we are asked to replace our direct experience and honest longing with an prescribed set of “correct” feelings, beliefs, perceptions, goals and activities. We are to set aside the truth of our own reality and this moment and focus on another (much better) self, place and time.
When we leave the church, we are often forced to awaken these rusty gifts. We can either search for a new external script to live by, or start the difficult work of learning how to trust and listen to what we are actually perceiving and experiencing in our world, rather than simply applying another’s view of what we should be experiencing. During this process, if we yet hold on to the idea that God only sings one kind of song, and we can’t hear it, the heavens seem painfully quiet to us in our hour of greatest need.
Regardless of whether you see God as a human personage, a savior, a trinity, a being, a force or energy, life itself, a matrix, nature, science and rationality, or everything that exists—to me the fundamental quality of the word “God” is truth—whatever is real. As I see it, God is nothing smaller than the truth of all that is—and the music of this reality never stops. Regardless of our faith, beliefs, or adherence to any particular ideology, life, and the truth it holds, is always singing. Tuning in with my graciously built-in antennae, I can explore the nature of this reality in its infinite mystery, variation, complexity, pain, and beauty, all from the inside, because I’m part of it all. From this vantage point, I find I can’t be separated from God any more than a sun ray can be separated from the sun.
And just as the sun doesn’t need us to earn or deserve its unconditional warmth, the God I experience doesn’t need me to believe, strive, beg, plead, or even be worthy of the song. Reality is there to be witnessed, with or without faith. The sun shines on me, the rain falls on me, the earth feeds me, my eyes, ears, tongue, nose and skin inform me, my miraculous body and mind teach me.
It appears that the whole of me was created as a living, breathing receiver.
And everything around me is the message: the goodness of the sky, my body, the mountains, my relationships, my food, transcendent music, beautiful architecture, the beach, definitely the Kunsthistoriches—and amazingly, even the suffering, the darkness, the confusion, complexity and pain.
By simply expanding the parameters of how God/Truth connect with me, I have began to feel a much bigger, more unconditional and omnipresent embrace than I ever believed possible. Every key on the spiritual piano can be played. I’ve been opened up to a God that is not confined to a certain time, place, mode of communication, or set of conditions—a God that is not confined by me—a God expansive enough to speak through everything, all the time. And I’ve been overwhelmed by how immense, complex, sad, and beautiful the song is.
But most of all, I’m amazed that for so long I only heard silence.