(This is an edited version of a post I shared in the A Thoughtful Faith Support Group on November 15, 2017.)
Last week, my wife and I returned from an 11 day trip to Barcelona Spain. I served my mission in Barcelona about 30 years ago.
My mission was full of deep, meaningful, and life changing spiritual experiences that formed integral building blocks for the foundation if my life’s service, relationships, and testimony in the Church and outside of the Church.
I served in the Hospitalet Ward in the Barcelona Stake, for an unusually long 13 months. I grew to know and love the people there like family. Several of the people I baptized and with whom I worked closely in that Ward are still active and in leadership positions. That Ward is now a Stake. The Bishop of ’87-’88 ended up in the Madrid Temple Presidency. The Ward Mission Leader with whom I worked ended up as a Seminary/Institute Teacher, later served as the Bishop, later as the Stake President, and now he is a Mission President in Bolivia. One of the members of the Ward from back in ’87 was a recently returned missionary and became a close friend. We did splits together to teach investigators and fellowship new members. That friend ended up marrying a woman who was the first person we baptized in the Ward more than 30 years ago. He later became the Bishop of the Ward and is now in the Stake Presidency, and that woman we baptized who later became his wife is now the Stake Relief Society President. Others we baptized also served in many Ward and Stake leadership positions over the years, as Presidents, in Bishoprics, as spouses of Bishops, etc. Their children have served missions, been married in temples, etc.
I have periodically stayed in touch with these good friends from the Hospitalet Ward. Over the years and today, I still experience spiritual connection as I interact with them. They have been very kind to me over these last 30 years. They taught me Gratitude—the very kind of Gratitude which has become a foundation for my life, the Gratitude for simply having the opportunity to participate in the lives of others. The Gratitude replaced perfectionism for me. It helped me to learn to measure progress instead of shortfalls against perfection. The Gratitude helps combat my desire to prove or justify myself and my decisions to others or to compare myself and my performance to others. I’m not perfect. I have much to improve, but these people, participating in their lives, and having those experiences helped me become a better person.
Post faith deconstruction, I really needed to understand and reconcile these spiritual connections, experiences, and building blocks of who I have become.
Before my mission, I grew up in Mesa, Arizona, as the oldest of 4 children in what would become a broken family at my age 15. Because we were of such limited means, we would routinely get evicted from the places we lived. I attended 8 different elementary/middle schools during K-9, and I lived in 2 different homes/Wards during my 3 years in High School. As the poor, short, red-headed, scrawny kid with coke bottle thick glasses, I constantly had to make new friends and defend myself before school bullies each time we moved—K-12. There wasn’t a single home during my youth in which I ever lived more than about 2 years. I constantly felt I had to justify myself before my peers due to my small stature (I topped out at 5’6”), the financial means of my family, and my natural perfectionism. My social confidence was such that I didn’t date until my Senior year of High School. After graduation and my mother’s remarriage into a family in which I felt like I struggled to fit at the time, I spent a rebellious year or two in Utah while working at Solitude ski resort.
Between my Junior and Senior years in High School I experienced what I thought was a very strong spiritual witness that God wanted me to serve an LDS mission. So, after my couple rebellious years in Utah working at Solitude, I counseled with my local Bishop, cleaned up my act and was called to serve my mission in Barcelona Spain.
During my mission, I claimed my own identity of who I was as a person. I was able to re-invent myself. I established deep and meaningful relationships. I felt appreciated and understood. I developed confidence and skills that would change my life. I developed a certainty of God, that Jesus was at the head of the LDS Church, that God would not allow the Brethren (leaders) to lead the Church astray, and of the literal historicity and truthfulness of the Books of Mormon, Abraham, and Moses. I learned how to study, focus, and develop habits that would transform my life. I learned how to be a teacher and a better communicator—which would influence the balance of my life, my education, and my career. I increased my social confidence to the extent that I approached dating post-mission with greater overall confidence.
My relationships with the people of that Hospitalet Ward developed so strongly over those 13 months in ’87-‘88 that the Ward provided me a Missionary Farewell type Sacrament meeting when I finished my mission. That Ward was more of a home for me than I had ever experienced in my life up to that point. I became part of their families. The people I baptized became integral parts of the Ward, and later Stake. The members with whom I worked were like family too. Again, this changed my life, filled my soul with gratitude, and cemented my certainty and testimony of God and His Church.
I served in the Hospitalet Ward during ’87-’88. I returned to visit again in ’94 and broke bread with them in several of their homes. I returned again with my wife in ’08, attended and was honored to be recognized from the pulpit in their Stake Conference by the former Ward Mission Leader who had become the Stake President, and I again visited several in their homes. Both in ’94 and in ’08, I stayed in one of their homes during part of my visit—one family was so insistent. Now, 9 years since my last visit in ’08, and post-faith crisis, I returned to visit again—this time with both my mostly Active Believing Mormon wife and my faith-transitioned 24 year old adult son.
I’ve been on Sabbatical from the Sunday meetings and Stake Conferences since August 2016. My Sabbatical has been vital to my emotional and spiritual well-being during these last 15 months in order to process the Grief and the Trauma of my faith deconstruction. However, that first weekend I was in Barcelona, I attended the Saturday evening session of the Stake Conference in order to be able to see many of my Hospitalet Stake “family” in a single setting. My wife and I sat one row ahead of that Bishop from ’87-‘88. Both the first woman we baptized and her husband were speakers that evening—as the Stake RS President and a member of the Stake Presidency.
As an important part of my faith deconstruction, I looked forward both with anticipation and hesitancy towards visiting the Hospitalet Ward/Stake again. I longed to make sense of my past spiritual experiences in light of my changed views about the Church. I wanted to process and understand what was real, what was Elevation emotion or confirmation bias, and how would this all fit into my changed views about the Church, the Brethren, the Priesthood, and God.
During these last 18 months of my faith crisis, deconstruction, and reconstruction, my personal conclusions have been that neither the Church or the Brethren are what they represent themselves to be, that Jesus is not at the head, that the Church holds no exclusive keys or authority, that Jesus was most likely an insurrectionist peasant Jew born out of wedlock in Nazareth and a follower of John the Baptist upon which Paul created a religious movement within Judaism, that the 5 Books of Moses consist mostly of myths written between the 7th and 10th Centuries BC to unite 3 different unrelated peoples (those of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob/Israel) who largely worshiped the Canaanite fertility god El (among many gods) before Yahweh replaced El as a monotheistic God, and that the majority of the volume of my past spiritual experiences were most likely the Elevation Emotion, the Illusory Truth Effect, and Confirmation Bias.
Still, even though I am probably less than agnostic about a separate divine being, as an interventionist God, formed in the image of man with human characteristics, I still do believe in a divine interconnectedness that connects all humans and all things. I do believe that my past and present spiritual experiences—those that were not the Elevation Emotion, the Illusory Truth Effect, and/or Confirmation Bias—were/are something real. I do believe that there is metaphysical power within us, that connects us in love, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, and in good and evil. During most of my faith deconstruction and reconstruction, I hesitantly referred to this spiritual interconnectedness as “God” because I didn’t wish to confuse it with the humanistic interventionist separate being I used to refer to as “God.” This interconnectedness is real to me as something beyond emotion. It moves me.
The experience of those 11 days in Spain:
As I attended Stake Conference that evening of October 28th, I re-experienced the spiritual interconnectedness with the two speakers—the councilor in the Stake Presidency who was my friend with whom I did joint missionary work, and his wife whom I baptized and is now the Stake RS president. They spoke about peace and contention, and service and love.
I re-experienced the spiritual interconnectedness before the meeting when I visited with the former Bishop from ’87-’88 and his wife, who sat one row behind us. I re-experienced the spiritual interconnectedness with the other members with whom I visited after the meeting—including people I baptized and members from ’87-’88 who regularly invited me and my companions into their homes for meals and to help teach their friends, family, and neighbors. To me, it was more than just emotions of gratitude, love, and the Elevation emotion. It was deeper than that.
However, that evening of Stake Conference there were other speakers. One of the keynote speakers that night was the current Mission President, a retired physician from the U.S. His talk significantly moved him, but it was all about false history—in particular regarding the Word of Wisdom. His talk probably moved members of the congregation. But, it was false history and testimony, it conflicted with the actual words D&C 89—in spite of exactly correlating with I have concluded is whitewashed and spun information in Church manuals and other publications.
Many months ago, Gina Colvin in a post on A Thoughtful Faith Support Group pointed out that for many faith traditions, spiritual experiences are about “communion with God,” and not about divine “witnesses of truth.” I liked that because one of the most painful parts of my early acute weeks of faith crisis was the realization that what I had believed my whole life were divine spiritual witnesses of truth actually testified of the truthfulness of things I came to conclude were false. The construct of some spiritual experiences being “communion” instead of “witnesses” was a healing reconcilation for me. I’ve carried that construct of communion. I experienced that construct the evening of October 28th, in Saturday evening Stake Conference, in the Hospitalet Stake in Spain. There was “communion” in the midst of what I now conclude is false history, false exclusive authority, false constructs of God and the Brethren, and a man-made Church.
During the following week, as I visited several of these families in their homes, and I met their children—now 9 years older than the last time I visited—and I heard of those children who served missions and were married in Temples. From time to time during these visits, I re-experienced glimpses of spiritual interconnectedness. I felt gratitude for the opportunity to participate in their lives so long ago, and still today. I felt gratitude as they shared how participating in the Church helped them in their lives, helped provide them direction, helped preserve families where some of them had adult siblings who’s families had fallen apart due to poor choices, helped them avoid problems with drugs or alcohol that some of their non-member adult siblings had experienced, and provided them community, faith, and purpose.
A few of the people I visited know that my views about the Church have changed because they have read via Facebook translator some of the things I have posted on my Facebook timeline, but it didn’t make any difference to them. They accepted me and loved me 100%, as if not a day had passed since I left in August ’88. I didn’t feel a need to proselytize them about my changed views. If they brought up something that was fantastic or something that I didn’t believe anymore, I found it easy to make comments that expressed that although I may not believe the same about that particular thing, I still find beauty and goodness in many of those things. When they asked about my current calling, and I told them that I don’t have one now, they left it alone. When they asked my son about where he served a mission or whether he had a girlfriend, they left it alone when we answered that he hadn’t served and doesn’t have a girlfriend.
It was good. it was cathartic. It was exhausting and draining at the same time because these experiences gave me more to “unpack” and “deconstruct.” But, it was worth it.
One evening when we arrived back at the VRBO apartment we rented for our stay there, my wife held me in her arms as I wept due to the new things I was deconstructing, unpacking, and reconstructing. It was hard and beautiful at the same time. I needed there to still be beauty in those things, and there was, but it was still painful to let go of what I used to hold with such certainty.
Also during these 11 days, I listened to several podcasts that Bill Reel suggested in one of his late October Facebook posts. Several of them I had already heard, but two of them which I had not were episodes #6 and #7 from The Liturgists Podcast titled, “Lost and Found.” Episode #6, the “Lost” part of the two episodes touched my heart and soul deeply, very deeply.
One of the podcast hosts explained his loss of faith and the closing of the Heavens when he lost God, as the same as if he lost his literal father to death—but even deeper, with more grief and loss than it would be losing his biological father. His experience so deeply connected with me that I listened to that episode twice, as I wept, because truly, it was a reminder that I was not alone and that someone out there really understood the depth of grief, pain, and loss that I experienced during the most acute, the first 6 weeks of my faith crisis. I liked #7, but I didn’t have faith that my “Found” experience would ever happen or be anything like theirs. Still, I was happy with the idea that my “Found” experience could simply be limited to the post-faith-transition spiritual interconnectedness I now experience with you, many of you I now call friends, and with my fellow men and women in my local community, and with those whom accepted me, loved me, and allowed me a glimpse of participation in their lives 30 years ago during my mission.
Even with that one Saturday night Conference, and the several dinners with my mission-time friends, the majority of our 11 days in Barcelona were spent touring Barcelona and the Province of Catalunya.
It was amazing!
We attended a Catalan Catholic Mass during the entire day we spent at Montserrat (a monastery up high in the mountains that started around 900 AD). I am fluent in Castilian Spanish, and even though I am not fluent in Catalan, I understood roughly 1/2 of the Mass. I was moved as I watched the participants from the congregation. I was moved as we later made our way to view the Lady of Montserrat and watched visitors honor and pray there and light candles and offer prayers outside of the building on their way back to the plaza and museum. These people saw the divine in their humanistic construct of Mary, Jesus, and Saints. These were the “stories” with which they could relate their spiritual experiences and devotion. Embarrassingly, as a Mormon Missionary, I depreciated those things as remnants of the Apostasy directed by the Adversary (thank you Bruce McConkie). For the majority of the early months of my faith transition, I saw those things as mostly Stage 2 and Stage 3 Faith lower levels of human and Faith development that were just plain weird. They are still weird to me, but they are beautiful to me in a way now too—as long as the harms and the priestcrafts are extracted.
This is a good essay that explains Fowler’s Stages of Faith: http://www.thebattleofarmageddon.com/stages_of_faith.pdf
We toured holy sites in Tarragona that included BC Roman structures. We toured the town of Besalu that was established around 1000 AD, which included a sacred Jewish sector with ritual sacred bathing areas that were hidden and unknown from the time of the Spanish Inquisition until the 1900s. We toured different monasteries, churches, cathedrals and holy sites along the Costa Brava, in the Girona area, and in and around Barcelona. We spent a 1/2 day in and around the Sagrada Familia. We toured the Picasso museum in Barcelona, and we visited museums and exhibits that included works from Gaudi and Dali.
I developed a greater appreciation of how spiritually and connection with the perceived divine affected people over more than 2000 years—all the way from BC to today, with the Stake Conference in Hospitalet.
These experiences, combined with those two The Liturgist Podcast episodes and a couple Rob Bell podcast interviews, helped define and refine my reconstruction of what spiritually and divinity are, and what they are not—at least my perception of these things.
These experiences also really helped define and refine in my perception what is man-made in religion (most all of it) and the construct of what divinity and God are. I saw evidences of the abuse, of the atrocities, of the wars, of the sexism, of the patriarchy, of the corruption, as well as of the artistic influence and of the humanization of God. I saw the impact of the Feminine Divine within Catholicism and among the pre-Christian Romans. I saw the impact of the perceptions and beliefs regarding the spirits/souls of the dead—loved ones, saints, etc.—before and during Christianity in Spain, and among artists like Gaudi, Dali, and Picasso.
During those 11 days, for me, the impact of divinity and spirituality further distinguished itself from religion and the man-made humanization of religion and the perception of God.
I experienced the construct of God as not-separate-from-us power and presence of which we all form a part, that the power is in and through us, that we are good and evil both without needing the separate man-made constructs of beings like a masculine or feminine God or Satan that lead us to be good or evil.
I experienced power in this interconnectedness with all humanity and all things—from the people on the streets, the people who served us in restaurants or rode with us on the subway, the people from my mission, the people expressing devotion at these historical and religious sites, from the art in the museums, from the architecture and other expressions in the buildings and structures, from the dancers at the flamenco performance we attended, and even from the animals we observed along the way. It, the interconnectedness, was everywhere for me—not 100% of the time, but enough to notice it and at times, to be deeply moved by it.
I’ve mentioned that I have felt hesitant to call this interconnectedness “God” in the past because I had felt so burnt from my faith crisis and transition, and in the past, “God” represented a humanistic, man-made construct of an interventionist being that no longer made sense to me—certainly not Joseph Smith’s white, polygamist, resurrected God/Father with something other than blood flowing through his veins and heart, who lived on some crystalized Urim and Thummim of a planet out there in the universe with gold streets and many mansions, with his wives who could still bear him children, near a star called Kolob.
However, during these last two weeks, my comfort with calling this power of interconnectedness, which I now experience in and through us, that connects us, that moves us, of which we are all a part, “God”, somehow increased. As I conversed with my friends from my mission, my comfort using the word “God” as referencing this all-encompassing interconnection between us increased.
The day of our departure from Barcelona and return to the U.S. was November 7.
I had pre-ordered the Audible version of Reza Aslan’s new book, God: A Human History. As we were prepping to leave for the airport, I received a notice that the book was available for download. I saw that it was less than 5 1/2 hrs long, so I downloaded it to listen to during our flights and JFK layover on the way home.
In the book, Aslan provides a historical framework for how humans conceived the divine and God from the time of the Neanderthals, all the way to the present. He explains scholars’ take on how faith and a belief that there are spirits or souls separate from our human bodies fit into the evolution of humans, and he explains different viewpoints on why these types of beliefs may have survived evolution. He explains different constructs of God over 10s and 100s of thousands of years. He explains historical movements towards and away from monotheism.
In the last chapter, he explains Pantheism as sort of a return to what our earliest human ancestors tended to believe about spirits/souls/divinity, and which has surfaced many times during the history of humanity.
I did find the last chapter somewhat didactic in the way he presented it. Aslan explains his own journey from Islam, to to evangelical Christianity, back to Islam, and then to a version of progressive Islam, and then to Pantheism—which in many ways encompasses or relates to progressive Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Daoism, Hinduism, etc., etc. He explains his take on why Pantheism actually makes the most sense to him and why literalism and man-made religious dogma based on humanistic Gods doesn’t make much sense.
The basic ideas of Pantheism are that there is no separate being that is a creationist God, that all things and everyone is part of God, that we are of our own power for good and evil, that to know God is to know oneself because we are God, that our desire for morality and goodness comes from our recognition that we are all part of the whole, we all do best when we strive to be “one”, and that although there may be nothing that continues of our current distinguishing consciousness beyond this life, that eternal life is what is happening now in the present, and that everything that exists now, existed at the time of the Big Bang, and it will all likewise exist in some way or form another billion years from now, and we just simply get to participate in this whole thing now, in the present.
What came across to me as Aslan’s didactic explanations in that last chapter led me to want to push back, that I didn’t need him as a prophet or a teacher, that I was going to have my own experiences and reach my own conclusions. Yet, a good portion of what he described about Pantheism actually described my experiences and my developing and refining reconstruction of interconnectedness, divinity, faith, beauty, and goodness in those prior 11 days in Spain. Much of that chapter described my experience since I exited “the Dark Night of the Soul” about 15 months ago, and my magnified and enhanced experience of empathy and compassion took hold after meeting people like you in these support groups, attending the Sunstone Symposium in SLC, and attending a John Dehlin led Mormon Transitions Workshop with Gina Colvin and Thomas McConkie the day before Sunstone in 2016.
Progress towards reconciliation:
So today, a week after returning home from our trip to Spain, I feel like I am in a good place. I re-listened to Aslan’s book a second time. I’ve reviewed my experience of my trip to revisit my mission friends, and I’ve worked to try to put it into words here.
I’m not done searching. I don’t have everything figured out. I don’t know if my progressing construct of divine interconnectedness that sort of fits with Panthesim will mean anything in the future with regard to any sort of active participation in any faith tradition, but it does give me more peace, and it allows me to live more squarely in the present. I feel more empowered to claim my own spirituality after these experiences, podcast episodes, and the book.
I hold out a remnant of hope that I am moving to a place where I could practice my evolving view of divinity and spirituality within the confines of my Tribe of Mormonism in order to re-establish my relationships with my friends and share some sort of spiritual practices with my wife within her practice of Mormonism. I don’t know if I’ll get there or if I’ll end up officially resigning my membership at some point, but I think I’m getting closer to whatever it will be.
I feel myself probably growing less than agnostic about a separate divine being, as an interventionist God with human characteristics, or as some great spirit that fills the universe and dwells in my soul but who also predestined people to burn in an everlasting hell, or who required the literal crucifixion of a literal historical Jesus for violations of pharisaical behavioral litmus tests or for allowing women to pray in Church contrary to Paul, etc.
At the same time, I find myself growing in comfort with spiritual interconnectedness, combined with magnified and enhanced empathy and compassion, and to call this experienced “God” or even to use the word “Panthiesm” to describe it.
I was curious. I looked up “Panthiesm.” Hardcore atheist, Richard Dawkins refers to it as “sexed-up atheism”. Whatever. I live in the present. I find beauty, goodness, and meaning in my interconnectedness with you and others I meet. I find meaning and goodness in forgiveness, compassion, service, love, and to mourn with those who mourn, and to comfort those who stand in need of comfort. I find value in some of the teachings attributed to Jesus—whether or not the historical Jesus actually said those things.
Thank you for reading my experience. I hope that it either means something to some of you or that it helps you understand others.
2 thoughts on “Progress with my reconciliation of spiritual experiences with my faith deconstruction and reconstruction.”
Anthony, I commented on one of your posts. I have only read bits of this one. I am not sure where you are in your “beliefs”. You grew up in Montana? I grew up in a small Mormon town in the middle of Utah. Mormonism is but another example of how easily it is to fool people into believing that they will live forever. Joseph Smith’s imagination had no bounds. GROG
I think it would help if you read my initial, Introductory blog post.