When I left the Mormon church in 2000, I had to figure out a short way to explain to people why I left. I learned quickly that nobody wanted to hear my Mormon version of Luther’s 95 Theses. I think the most succinct, if perhaps not the most satisfactory, explanation I came up with was this:
I started asking different questions.
As I started to move away from Mormonism, I realized that Mormonism didn’t just claim to tell you what the right answers are—it claimed to know what the right questions are. I think this is true of almost all of Christianity, and maybe all of Western religion.
Maybe that’s what being a part of religious community means—not necessarily having the same answers, but having the same questions.
When I was Mormon, my questions were typical Christian ones: How do I get closer to God? How do I remove the feeling of guilt my sins? How do I get into heaven? And also questions specific to Mormonism: Is the Mormon church “true”? Is the Book of Mormon historical? Does the Mormon prophet speak for God?
Mormons claim to know the answers to all these questions. And every Sunday at the Mormon church is an exercise in affirming collectively what the answers to those questions are. Some people may doubt the answers, but no one ever seems to doubt the questions.
Within a few years after my formal departure from the Mormon church, I could no longer muster up the energy to even argue about the question of whether the Mormon church was “true”. Similarly, after experiencing a saving moment of grace, I longer found questions about Jesus to be interesting in anything other than an academic sense. I continue to have a passing interest in all things Mormon. But I rarely look beyond the headlines.
My departure from the Mormon church started with my doubting the answers, but it ended with me rejecting the questions. Over a period of several years, the questions Mormonism asked became less and less relevant to me, and I started to ask new ones:
How do I reconcile the beauty and violence I see in nature? How do I avoid creating divinity in my own image (as I had done with Mormonism)? What does the body have to do with spirituality and what should I be learning from my embodiment? What does it mean to say we are all connected? When (and how) should I stop thinking and just start feeling? How can I reap the benefits of spiritual community while avoiding the dangers?
Eventually I found Paganism, which helped me to start to answer some of these questions for myself. In the course of my interaction with the Pagan community in general, the humanistic/naturalistic Pagan community specifically, and the Unitarian Universalist community, I also became interested in the question: How might we reject the literalism, dogmatism, and purity culture of theistic religions without losing the enthusiasm which sustains religious movements?
Over the next 15 years or so, however, my relationship with the Pagan community grew increasingly conflicted. I came to realize that my questions weren’t really at the center of contemporary Paganism, but more on the periphery. Instead, I found the center of Paganism was dominated by questions about literal, anthropomorphic deities and practical magic. These were never my questions.
So, eventually, I found myself leaving the Pagan community behind too. It is disappointing to have lost a connection to yet another religious community. I continue to be “Pagan-adjacent” and call myself a “small-p” pagan, but I don’t belong anywhere near the cultural center of contemporary Paganism.
Along the way, I’ve developed new questions:
• I’m interested in what a truly spiritual activism looks like, and the corresponding question of what an activist spirituality looks like. I want to find a way to integrate ritual praxis and political action in way that retains the power of religious ritual without alienating those who are put off by traditional religion.
• I am interested how the in the multiple kyriarchies–patriarchy, capitalism, racism, anthropocentrism–overlap and weave their way insidiously into our individual and collective psyches, and how we deconstruct those hierarchies, both individually and collectively.
• I am interested in navigating a path between the Scylla and Charybdis of a reductive materialism and an alienated supernaturalism. I am interesting in figuring out how to recognize and honor the agency of the more-than-human world without anthropomorphizing or projecting my own imaginings onto it.
• I am interested in in developing practices for cultivating an immediate and sensual relationship with the land I stand on and the other-than-human beings (as well as the human beings) that fill the world around me.
• I am interested in learning how to live a meaningful, joyful, and socially-responsible life in light of an awareness of impending civilizational collapse. I am especially interested in what an effective activism looks like at the “end of the world as we know it”.
I haven’t yet found a single community–religious or otherwise–that is asking all of these questions, but I have found different communities that are asking one or more of them. If you are interested in these questions and have found a community to explore them with, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.