What I value from my traditionalist religious upbringing

I was raised in the Latter-day Saint tradition. Some of my mother’s ancestors were among the very first converts to early Mormonism and traveled west with other Mormon pioneers to build the Kingdom in the west.

Like many religious communities, Mormonism began as a radical and revolutionary reaction to the prevailing religious context of the day (part of the Second Great Awakening). Early Mormonism developed an expansive, creative, and exciting theology of the cosmos. Also like many religious communities, however, it quickly institutionalized, bureaucratized, and routinized as the leadership worked to maintain order and control over the growing community.

In the early part of the 20th century, the LDS Church resembled Mainline Protestant denominations in many ways as leaders sought to normalize and mainstream the organization’s culture and theology after the end of polygamy. Beginning in the 1970s, however, the LDS Church largely cast its lot with the Religious Right, doubling down on a traditionalist and literalistic approach to theology and scripture while “retrenching” into a strongly conservative social/political agenda.

This was the social milieu into which I was born and raised. I value and honor my religious heritage, although I have come to understand the values and worldview that I was taught as representing in many ways a relatively new traditionalist/conservative phase in the longer history of Mormonism. Through several years of reading, reflection, and (frankly) counseling therapy, I have come to realize that this upbringing also gave me several unhealthy psychological and emotional pathologies that I continue to struggle with in my life. Perhaps I will discuss those at a later time.

For now, though, I want to describe some of the things that I am grateful for in my upbringing. While I developed many unhealthy pathologies growing up in this context, I also had many opportunities and experiences that I am incredibly grateful for. I also had the opportunity to develop habits and perspectives that continue to help me strengthen my spirituality.

For example, like many young Latter-day Saints I served a two-year proselyting mission in Virginia where I was assigned to learn Spanish and work with the immigrant communities living there. This was a life-changing experience that helped me learn to love Latin American people and their culture, food, and values. I spent much of my early academic career studying public opinion toward immigration policy as a result of this experience. I was introduced to the person who later became my wife because she also spoke Spanish and her sister thought we might get along. Much of the good in my life I owe to this experience in my youth.

Like Evangelicals and other conservative Christians, young Latter-day Saints are taught from an early age to read scriptures frequently and deeply and to take them seriously as a source of spirituality and religious knowledge. Even after I “deconstructed” my understanding of what scriptures are in my late 20s learning about Biblical criticism, narrative studies, and alike, I “reconstructed” an appreciation and love for scripture reading afterwards. To this day, engaging in lectio divino with sacred texts, often through the daily office schedule, is an important religious practice through which I find meaningful spiritual growth and feel God’s love on a regular basis.

Like conservative charismatic Christians (Evangelicals, Pentecostals, etc.), young Latter-day Saints are taught at an early age to “seek after the Spirit” in their lives. Other traditions use different labels, but Mormon epistemology relies heavily on the spiritual experience that psychologists of religion call “elevation emotion” or that progressive Christians refer to as “mystical” or “transcendent” experiences. Luke’s gospel refers to the disciples on the road to Emmaus as feeling as though their hearts were “burning” (24:32). While I have since learned that the experience of this emotion has a naturalistic, psychological explanation and is very often driven by cultural and contextual cues, “feeling the Spirit” is nonetheless something that I seek for during prayer, scripture reading, worship experiences, and other spiritual contexts. It is a primary way through which I continue to experience spirituality in my life.

My upbringing taught me about the importance of giving service to others. I participated in many, many “service projects” in my youth that raised me with the habit of pitching in to be of help when needed. Organized Mormon communities often have a small army of people who fully expect to be called upon to help people pack or unpack a moving truck.

Perhaps above all, I was raised to have faith in God and to express that faith through the Christian story. This is something that I continue to be grateful for, even as my understanding of that story has shifted considerably since I was young.

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