Recently, following a neighborhood meeting wherein we as neighbors had a chance to introduce ourselves, I found myself confronted with the question I knew I would eventually have to answer, and which I have been avoiding for little over two years. “Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?”
My response, while not intending to be evasive, was “That is a somewhat involved answer. If you will permit me, I will try and explain.” Not something that a very faith-orientated Christian wants to hear, and certainly something that bodes of apostasy or perhaps worse.
Out of respect for those of faith, I have kept myself separate, and have avoided direct engagement of any sort. This is not because I fear confrontation, far from it. Rather, it is because I know that were someone to engage in direct conversation with me over matters of faith, the result could be damaging to their current paradigm.
I say this, not out of conceit, but a keen awareness of what it is like to be a complete believer, in every sense of the word; and then to turn from that.
Fearless, my faithful inquisitor persisted, and seemed not to care as to the length of time required to make myself, my feelings, plain.
“I used to be quite fundamentalist in my world view,” I began, “it defined every aspect of my life, my being, everything. It provided the context under which all my decisions were rendered, and all my understanding was founded.” She smiled approvingly, having a sense of understanding, but not real comprehension, “It WAS me, my faith, it DEFINED me, molded me, was the core of my every decision, and the conclusion of my every thought.” I realized that I needed to put a finer point on it, and I spoke the words, “I was Mormon.” At that, a kind of recognition came over her eyes, with all the standard assumptions. She remarked, “I was Mormon too, for six months. Then I got out.” I explained, “It was a bit longer for me, and the consequence of my commitment a bit more involved.” And so began my response to, “Do you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ?”
I could have simply said no, and be done with it. However that simple word does not sufficiently convey all that was involved in my decision to become Mormon, and my decision to abandon that paradigm.
The first thing one must realize is what motivated me in the first place to seek out religion at all. Having been raised both in the Netherlands and the United States, there was always a degree of cognitive dissidence in my mind relative to the human body and the degree of shame one should exhibit in public. My mother, a beautiful woman from the Netherlands, and a former playmate centerfold taught me to not be ashamed of my body, and to enjoy it’s every expression. And this ideal was realized in every summer that I spent with my family in the Netherlands, or abroad in Europe. My time spent on the various beaches of the world was a lesson in personal maturity, and not one of lurid voyerism. However, growing up in the United States, we were often told that sex is dirty and our bodies were something to be concealed, covered, in shame. That, and my mother was a whore for being a Playboy Centerfold.
These conflicting ideas molded an aspect of my persona that only recently I have recognized and been able to embrace and understand. This, and the broken nature of my family – the typical divorce scenario of the 70′s – created within me a deep need to rectify the decisions of my parents.
As fate would have it, my mother decided that I needed religion when I turned twelve (I think most parents feel that way when their children turn twelve or thirteen), and so I was sent to catechism – which I LOVED! There was something so completely reassuring about the structure and nature of religion. It was as if I had finally discovered the hidden rule book for life, and suddenly things made sense. Furthermore, there was a kind of sureness in knowing that the priesthood represented by the Catholic Priests was a literal extension of the authority given to Peter by the hands of Jesus Christ (I was fortunate to have had honorable men as my leaders within the Catholic church). This feeling – this sense of priesthood authority and by extension God’s authority to act on the earth – did not last long, however. At fourteen, I was able to discern that the “Chain of Custody” relative to priesthood authority, was broken. At first blush, this revelation may sound odd, especially from one who recognized it at fourteen, but realize that I had a great deal of time on my hands, and few friends due to the imposed isolation I enjoyed as a child and teen. Free from the distraction of my adolescence, my mother filled my time with a thousand and one duties, chores, or studies. At the time, I was not as appreciative as I could have been; but looking back now, I realize it was formative to my entire cognitive process.
So at fourteen I abandoned my dreams of going to Seminary and becoming a priest. I spent some time examining the Protestant Reformation, and realized that the fruit of a poisoned tree was still poisoned. Hence, no particular authority to do anything in God’s name, regardless of whatever this reverend or that clergyman may claim. The beauty of religion is it’s structure, which provides a sure measure of how it is to operate. Regardless of what may be claimed in Christianity, a clear line or “Chain of Custody” for priesthood authority was broken following Peter’s Martyrdom. Even were one to be forgiving and assume that it lasted until the Council of Nicea, the reality is, once Christianity became a State religion under Constantine, its chain of priesthood authority was completely lost. This was something that I simply could not overcome, until I met my first Mormon.
Mormonism, can prove very seductive to both the informed and uninformed. By it’s very nature, it bridges the gap between the ancient and the contemporary. Within Mormonism, the question of “Chain of Custody” of priesthood authority was addressed via the laying on of hands by resurrected beings to a living prophet.
Okay, I can hear what some of you are probably thinking, “This man is out of his mind.” This would be true, from a egocentric paradigm that assumes that the idea of a resurrected being is pure fiction. However, from the paradigm of one who believes that God exists, that they are a divine creation of God, that Jesus was an actual historical figure with direct Divine linage (ie: God’s literal Son), and that God’s authority to act in His name was passed on from his Son to man on the earth, and that resurrection was possible … not so much. I lived in that paradigm for most of my life.
Keeping that paradigm in mind, it was a small matter to believe that the same God who interacted DIRECTLY with men and women anciently, would do so again, using the same or similar conventions. As such, intervention via angelic or resurrected beings was entirely conceivable.
And so began my odyssey in Mormonism which lasted 25 years. In that time, I sought out the Church independently, however my eventual membership was not without significant personal costs. Upon confessing my baptism into the Church to my mother, I was effectively disowned. My father responded in kind, and was nothing short of derisive with regard to his opinion of my intellect, or my capacity to make an informed decision. This was cast into stone when I announced a few months later that I had found my eternal companion, and that I would be Sealed in the Temple (a place they could never go) forever. From that time forward, I was effectively dead to my mother (my father remained indifferent), and I am told my mother sealed this in her recent death by writing me out of her will.
So my joining and participating my my chosen faith began with enormous sacrifice, and continued to remain so until I left. In that time, I was wed – and remain wed to this day – and raised three amazing children who were all “Born under the Covenant.” Meaning by virtue of the Temple Covenants kept and honored by my wife and I, our children were bound to us as a family forever. This is a very sacred and beautiful concept as taught by the Church.
“So why did you leave?” Asked my ever-patient inquisitor.
“Because each and every decision made to that point was founded in my learned perception of guilt.” I paused a moment to allow the weight of that statement to settle in. Both of us came from Catholic roots, and where my level of commitment was complete as a Mormon, so to was hers, as that she was once a Nun. We both understood the power of Guilt, and all that is accomplished at it’s hand.
It was true. I married early (at nineteen) and forged a family because that was the most important thing in the world to me (and continues to be). I wanted to demonstrate that a family could be maintained. That with sacrifice and hard work, with love and patience, with diligence and understanding, you could keep a marriage alive, and in so doing, secure a legacy for your children. I wanted to show the world that it could be done, and in so doing, become the father I always wished I had, and the husband I wished were at the side of my mother during all her many trials. I wanted to be a man. In fulfilling this desire, I became a man of God. A man of Faith. It defined me in every aspect.
I turned to my patient inquisitor and said, “I want to emphasize this, because you need to understand the explicit nature of my Crisis of Faith. I want you to understand that unlike your Vanilla Christian, or most ardent Catholic, I had assumed some rather sacred obligations within a place that has a very exclusive in nature. And I took those covenants very seriously.” And this is what happens to most people who were once Mormon: because their faith is so involved, so intrinsically fundamental, so complete, it prevents one from ever turning back to contemporary Christianity. It’s very much like taking the red pill, you simply can’t go back to what you knew in the first place was lacking.
And so, my mind began to turn toward the Eastern Religions I had studied in college, and I found a degree of comfort in Buddhism. However, it was not until recently that I finally understood the nature of religion and it’s outcome. I realized that all religious dogma is centered on controlling the individual through a series of morally enforced social morrays. It finally occurred to me that regardless of how you framed it, whether it be the Beattitudes or the Four Noble Truths, it was all nothing but another system of control. And once realizing this, I knew that there was, nor should there ever have been, a religion or dogma to quantify my experience here upon the earth. All of it, is made up. It is an illusion, crafted by those in power to make the masses willingly submissive. Religion is the most profound expression of Spiritual Force and violence. It becomes the causative force of change without the requisite underpinnings of reason by which we engage in every other decision within the framework of our mortal experience.
For me, and I imagine for many others, this was a very hard thing to accept. Hard and painful. The truth is that even though I had in practice abandoned Mormonism, I still drew heavily upon it as a point of reference; and it still proved the lens by which all other things were measured. Realize, I had spent a quarter century learning not only the Doctrine of my own faith, but because I truly believed that it was essential to be able to contextualize the truth as it disseminated cross-culturally, I felt it essential to immerse myself in all of the world’s ancient religions; because I felt that within them the same story was being told, over and over and over again. In this, I was right; albeit, I lacked the proper paradigm by which to truly appreciate the significance of this revelation.
And so, by degrees, I let go of God, and as I did, I realized the truth of my life. I realized that I had created within my mind a projection of God, which was merely an extension of my Ego seeking altruistic affirmation. Similarly, I had created within myself a projection that bore the root of all that I perceived as sin, the devil, Satan: my “Personal Adversary.” All of this was nothing but a projection of my Ego, magnified by guilt and personal approbation, and my faith that in some way, I would be made whole.
Ultimately, this was defined by my understanding of the scripture, “The Natural Man is and enemy to God;” ironically, it was not until I had put my projection of “God” aside, that the deeper meaning of scripture became apparent, revelatory even. As a Mormon, a fundamentalist, I saw myself – what Nietzsche might characterize as Instinct, my personal baser desires or motives – as God’s eternal enemy. In a very real way, I had become the enemy of God, and was forever indebted to Jesus Christ, as a result of his eternal sacrifice, which was his Atonement to set all things in order, my life in particular (hence He is a Savior to all and to me personally). And so, I was my own personal adversary (this idea proved very useful later). As I was finally able to critically examine my life and see things as they are and not as I wished, hoped, or imagined them to be I was finally able to accept the reality that what I thought was “God” was merely a projection of my own Ego.
I turned to my inquisitor and drew in my breath, because I knew that the words that would follow would either shake or insult her, either way, they would not be well received. “Once I realized that all of it, God, Satan, my relationship to guilt and sin, all of it was made up, that there was nothing in my own life experience that would indicate otherwise – other than what I was taught to believe – an incredible burden was lifted from me. It was as if I had just taken off one of those heavy lead-lined blankets that they give you when you get an x-ray – only a thousand times more massive. And as I suddenly realized the truth of it all, the myth of my own projection, the meaning of the scripture, ‘No man can look into the face of God and live,’ became apparent.
“Once I realized the impact of the projection of my Ego, that it had manifest as both God and Satan – being my exemplar of virtue and the foundation of my every sin – and that this was an illusion created by others as a means of control, control at one’s very core; once this illusion was cast away, the man I was before had died. He had to. I had seen the face of God, and it was in my own countenance, and the countenance of every man, woman, and child I met from that day forward. I saw the face of God in the eyes of my chihuahuas, and my parrot. It was in the voice of my son and my daughters. I suddenly realized the Truth of my existence, and how simple and how complex it was at the same instant.
“In that time, that realization has become more refined and brought into specific clarity through the course of my meditations,” I said, by way of indicating that I was finally coming to a conclusion. “However, realize that this was not some idle transition. I did not let go of God very easily. It was as if I had cut off some part of my being, and then realized that what was lost was never really there in the first place.” My inquisitor was obviously pained, her expression a mix of sympathy and something verging on anger or a sense or betrayal. My story was not some idle tale of a person who flippantly migrated from one belief set to another, it was one of real sacrifice, commitment, and self-discovery. It was something that most people of faith can not easily set aside or deny, because if comes from someone who understands a real commitment to the ideal that is Jesus Christ and God, and an active commitment via the course of real covenants made at the very sacred altars of God, within what is held to be one of the most sacred locations on the earth. Of course not everyone believes such, as that there are many religions, but the analogue of having engaged in sacred commitments to God in a sacred location is universally human; our history replete with it’s significance and import.
My story at it’s close, I concluded, “So in short, no, I no longer believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. However, I did not easily set aside what was a lifetime of commitment. Furthermore, I have the deepest respect for any who truly believe that their lives are governed by the dictates of God. How could I not? After all, were I to do so, I would by de facto, hold myself in disdain; and where is the benefit in that? Rather, I see my life as a fundamentalist Christian (truly Mormons see themselves as such, in a very real sense) as a means by which I am able to better understand myself and my brothers and sisters here upon the earth. It gave me an appreciation for sacred commitments, and a visceral understanding of the depth to which one can plumb the abyss of their own personal guilt and short-comings. And so, while I do not believe in the projection of my Ego, that was manifest in my idea of Jesus Christ or God, I do recognize the Truth of your divinity, and my own. I recognize, without the need for the Four Nobel Truths, or any other means of morality enforcement, the need to be moral and true; to be honest with yourself and others, and to cast all your illusions aside. I realize the truth of the statement, “Thy Will be done, shall be the whole of the Law,” by virtue of having finally understood the nature of my Will, and my Ego. And by virtue of understanding the exercise of my Will, by understanding the causality underlying the exercise of my Ego, I have become free. No longer bound by concerns with destiny and an imaginary future, I am able to focus upon the present, and in so doing, become a participant in my life, rather than a hapless observer.”
At this, she gazed momentarily at me, and then down at the table. I have found that this is often the general response that most have after hearing my story. It is hard to let go of what you in your heart have always known is a fiction. Harder still to recognize that you, as an intelligent, well-educated person were so completely duped. Worse, in my own case I became a willing participant in the perpetuation of the myth; so much so that I invested a decade of private study at two universities so as to develop my facility, my skill, my knowledge, in the things of God. I was a profoundly successful teacher, and I loved teaching the Word of God, from many cultural perspectives.
I concluded, “My life has been one of Fear and Faith. I began my quest because at some level, I feared that I would never be able to realize, what to me, was the most important thing we could do as human beings: be a loving, thoughtful, supportive, wise, patient parents; and make your family strong at their core. It is my greatest honor and pleasure to realize that this has become true, and by virtue of my family’s strength, intelligence, and soul; we have remained strong and bound together by love and nothing else.” This too, is a difficult thing for most fundamentalists to accept. I finished, “And so in my quest to discover the Face of God, I realized that I had only to look in the mirror, or across the table. This is why we are taught that we are created in the Image of God. Not because we in some way look like our imaginary god, but because the countenance of God is engraven upon our face and the countenance of every living being that flies, walks, crawls, swims or grows upon the earth. It is that we are made of the same stuff, already, here … on this earth. It is that we are all intrinsically connected, in real-time, in the Present. It was the realization that we are already eternal by virtue of our never being able to escape the Present. Eternal beings, cognizant of our existence only in the Present, we are God. We are, and all that we see is but a reflection of that divinity.
It is for this reason, that a man can not behold the face of God and live. Once you see this, once you realize this, your old self must perish. You can no longer hold onto the myth, the extension of your Ego, which is held aloft by sacred doctrine and dogma. You realize that you have been a citizen of that glorious house in the clouds that has no foundation. And you acknowledge that great was your fall as you let go of the things that kept you in denial of the truth.”
Our conversation moved in more prosaic directions following my answering of her question. And I have found that many, upon hearing that I may need to break into narrative, would rather not avail themselves of my explanation. It’s probably for the better. As I said earlier, my Crisis of Faith was one of the most singularly profound and painful experiences of my life. I did not enter upon it lightly, nor was my exit ill-considered, and I would not wish the experience upon any other human being. As a result, when asked this question, people find me either a very refreshing or extremely painful person with whom to converse.
It is a relief that I realize, it really doesn’t matter what others think. Approval-seeking is one of the greatest fortifications of the Ego, and one of the first things that must be released in order to become free.
Of Fear and Faith
By: Aubrey Forest