I have known Square Peg for several years, in the way you know people you've only met on the internet. He's a wonderful writer, and I'm glad he's allowed me to post his story on Viva Ned Flanders.
At the beginning of the year over on LDS Liberation Front, RoastedTomatoes ran a series called "What's Next?" The series told the stories of people who had undergone a change in faith, and discussed where their journeys could or did take them. (Full Disclosure: I was a major instigator of this series.) Not all the stories that were written were posted. This one was one of my very favorites. You snooze, you lose, RT! :)
My So-Called Heretical Life
An episode of the public radio program This American Life featured the story of Carlton Pearson, an Evangelical pastor in Tulsa, Oklahoma who—until sometime in early 2003—was widely regarded as “a rising evangelical megastar.” Reverend Pearson had it all: a thriving congregation in Tulsa with more than 5,000 members, close personal ties with leading members of the Evangelical elite, a seat on the Oral Roberts University Board of Regents, financial security, respect, honor.
Less than a year later, Reverend Pearson’s congregation had shrunk from 5,000 to 250. He had been denounced and rejected by virtually every leader in the evangelical movement, including Oral Roberts, the man who often used to refer to Pearson as his adopted son. He stood on the brink of bankruptcy and financial ruin. He had been rejected by many of his closest, most intimate friends. In what must have seemed like the blink of an eye, Carlton Pearson had gone from a celebrated leader to a complete pariah in the eyes of the only religious community he had ever known.
So how could this sad tale of a fallen Bible Belt preacher have anything to do with my own spiritual journey as a 5th-generation Idaho Mormon? The answer starts with the reason for Pearson’s dramatic downfall. There was no salacious sex scandal or financial misdeed. Nope. Carlson Pearson’s whole world came crashing down around him simply because, after a period of intense reflection and prayer, he stopped believing in the traditional Christian version of Hell—and started preaching that Christ’s atonement is sufficient to redeem “all of creation, including all human beings.” Because he refused to keep quiet about these (from an evangelical perspective) shocking beliefs, Pearson was branded a heretic and unequivocally rejected by the community he had dedicated his whole life to.
On the surface, I have very little in common with Reverend Pearson. I have spent most of my life as a quietly devout, believing member of the LDS church. I’m not particularly charismatic. I probably couldn’t give you a respectable AMEN! or PRAISE GOD! if you paid me. And I’ve certainly never aspired to any kind of leadership position—either inside or outside the LDS church. Until recently, I was one of the quiet, unassuming masses who simply tried his best to keep most of the boxes on the official “Worthy Mormon Male” checklist dutifully checked.
But despite our differences, Carlton Pearson’s story profoundly moved me for reasons that transcend our backgrounds and experiences. First, I too am a heretic—in my own quiet, low-key way. A couple of years ago, after an intense period of study and reflection, a gradual accumulation of vague doubts flowered into full-blown disbelief. I won’t bore you with the details—the circumstances and experiences that have led to my disbelief are as personal and unique as my own fingerprints. It’s enough to say that I no longer believe most of the foundational claims of the LDS church, and although anything is possible, I think it’s highly unlikely that I ever will.
But despite my heretical beliefs, I still feel deeply connected to the only religious community I have ever known. My wife, children, and extended family on both sides are all devout, active members, and I live in the heart of Utah County, where so many aspects of daily life are inexorably intertwined with the LDS church. I long to feel comfortable and accepted in the church as I once did—despite my unorthodox beliefs.
I have spoken with or read about many who remain active, faithful members on their own terms—often in spite of doubts and unorthodox views. These stories offer me hope that perhaps there is a place for me in the church—a place that will allow me to be true to myself and doesn’t force me to choose between my beliefs and my religious community.
But then I hear stories like Carlton Pearson’s (or Grant Palmer’s or Michael Quinn’s or Lavina Fielding Anderson’s) that remind me how much conservative religious communities fear and distrust heretics, and I realize that unless my beliefs somehow change, I will never again be completely accepted by (or acceptable to) the LDS community. In practical terms, this means I will probably never hold a temple recommend. I will never be able to participate in most cherished LDS rituals. In my very conservative ward, I will be gossiped about, strategized over, and fellowshipped. I will most likely not even be able to participate in my own children’s weddings, which frankly, seems inconceivable to me.
Of course, the costs of my private, low-key heresy are trivial compared to what Carlton Pearson and many others have been forced to pay. But they still feel pretty damned steep to me. So from my perspective, the answer to “What’s Next” boils down to two possibilities: I can continue to participate in the LDS community as a quiet heretic—and simply live with the fact that I will always be partially unaccepted and unacceptable. Or, like Carlton Pearson, rather than quietly going along to get along, I could choose to leave my religious heritage and begin the painful process of finding or building a new community that is more compatible with and accepting of my beliefs. The first option seems easier and more convenient—but also possibly less fulfilling over the long term. The second option feels more difficult and much more painful—but possibly more rewarding, honest, and meaningful.
Right now, I’m straddling the fence, considering both options but choosing neither. Someday, probably soon, I will make my choice, and I can honestly I don’t know which road I will choose. In retrospect, Carlton Pearson says that if he’d known, when he first started preaching his gospel of inclusion, that it would cost him so much, he would never have opened his mouth. But he also says that God doesn’t show you everything at once for a reason. And now that what’s done is done, there’s no way he’d go back. After I complete my journey, whatever I decide and whatever the outcome, I only hope I can say the same.