Black White thinking

I left active mormonism when I was a teenager during a great deal of personal growth and change. Looking back on it, it’s hard to say what belief systems were part of mormonism, and what were just part of maturing (growing up).

I would argue that there are many mormons (and adults, for that matter) who see things in terms of black and white (right and wrong).

Part of the consequences of this black/white thinking is that there is no separation between an individual and their actions. An individual is seen as either all good or all bad. This kind of thinking certainly makes life a lot easier to live. But the truth of the matter is that we’re all human, with the capacity for good and evil. Some days we’re honest and filled with charity. Some days we’re not honest and we really make a lot of mistakes.

Sometimes it seemed to me that because mormonism had such a laundry list of things a person needed to do – the complexity of being human was forgotten. Even if you do all these things, go to your meetings, go to the temple, write in your journal, don’t drink coffee – you still have the capacity to be human, to make mistakes. People would often say “only Christ is perfect” but in reality that never came across. People felt intense shame to admit that they weren’t perfect, that they cut corners or even didn’t follow everything to the letter. Often it seemed to me that the laundry list was much more important than not only examining your individual actions every day to try to be the best person possible, but also forgiving yourself if you didn’t get it all done. The assumption was that if a person completed the laundry list of things to do, that they were a good person that could be trusted.

There remain countless examples where this both was and wasn’t true. I can think of anything from businesspeople who scam fellow members to ab_users who take advantage of the non professional LDS clergy. And the many mormons who are good, decent people just trying to be charitable, grow their community and raise their families. In the end, there are no guarantees on human behavior.

The truth, again, is that everyone has to be cautious and to protect themselves while also taking risks.

But often, it seemed like there was little way for a person to be forgiven and redeemed in mormonism. I distinctly remember one father getting up in my ward – giving a talk on addiction. In this talk, he admitted that he had struggled with addiction for years, that he had been terribly ashamed. He spoke, briefly, about some of the substances he had abused and where they led him. He was now sober (and had been for over 10 years), honoring his obligations to his parents and family. Yet, this man did not have a high calling in the ward. I’m not sure he even had more than the Aaronic priesthood, despite being active. During his talk, I felt there was a distinct level of judgment hurled towards him. For some reason, I also remember someone saying “this is the reason you never want to try one drop of alcohol, you could end up like Brother so and so”. But he had also (obviously) made amends, and was working towards being a better person. Did he deserve to be punished by others for the rest of his life?

I won’t argue that this type of judgment occurs outside of mormon circles. I also won’t argue that I was young, a teenager, and I might not have understood all the nuances of what was going on (both with this person, and also with the other ward members).

I just think that in trying to project an image of perfection, of complete happiness and incapacity for evil (whatever your definition for evil is), I think that we lose the reality of what it means to be human. What it means to screw up, and screw up badly.

Mormons don’t say the Lord’s Prayer like other Christian religions do. Some days I wonder if a little more “And forgive us our trespasses, As we forgive those who trespass against us” wouldn’t help increase that level of tolerance and understanding.

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7 Responses

  1. mermaid says:

    Yes, this is a very good post. Black/white thinking is a sign of an immature brain and spirituality. Ideally life helps us to see the ambiguities in everything eventually, but because I think the Mormon Church as an institution is stuck in a very literal black and white Stage III (Fowler) place, it does foster this type of thinking. Most churches do. It takes a lot of living, suffering, and humility to learn about the grays in life.

  2. Andrew S says:

    I enjoy this post, and I do not deny seeing it in my wards or as a common thread of others who blog or write about the church.

    But…isn’t it interesting…that this very drive to see the church in black and white is what leads some people away from the church. They try to do everything they can, and indeed, they do…but still, they might feel empty. So they wonder: “How can I be doing everything I’m supposed to and not be receiving a confirmation?”

    Or another motif: the faithful person who reads something from a general authority or from the scriptures (not some anti-Mormon literature, but official church documents) that makes him question. And then he, in all faith, searches the scriptures to find the truth. And then he finds that church history or doctrine isn’t so clean.

    What I find funniest…in a darkly humourous way…is how people will *respond*. They will chastise the member for looking at the church in such a black and white way. How naive that member was, for example, to believe everything the church said about Joseph Smith. How naive the member was, for example, to believe that everything a Prophet says is prophecy actually is of the Lord…

    so the Church’s own black/white nature kinda hurts itself.

  3. chanson says:

    Actually, both of these comments remind me that one of the best discussions we’ve had here at MSP was on a closely related subject: Grayer than thou.

  4. I left the church because I looked at in black and white terms just like Hinckley told me to: either it’s fully true, or it’s a huge fraud. The irony is that I now see it in more nuanced terms, but I don’t foresee myself ever returning. Thank goodness for black and white thinking!

  5. aerin says:

    mermaid – thanks – I think it’s just easier to think of things in terms of black and white for many people. That’s part of the reason some churches end up dwelling in that space. There is a lot of grey.

    Andrew S. – thanks – mormonism being “all true” is one of the aspects that makes it unique. But it’s unrealistic (in my opinion) to expect anything to be all true. It sets up an impossible standard. I would think LDS leadership would try to distance itself from being “all true” and move towards inclusion, debate and compassion – more christ-like perspective.

  6. aerin says:

    Thanks chanson – I brought up that post and re-read the comments. Fascinating discussion!

    What I was trying to bring up in my post here was this notion that 1 – people are human 2 – people make mistakes 3 – if you truly consider yourself mormon/christian, and believe only christ should judge, why are you (SOME people who consider themselves mormon) spending so much time judging?

    I’ll give another example. It’s a simple line – people who get married in the temple – good, people who get married outside of the temple = bad. I don’t think most of the readers/posters here fall into this type of thinking/judgement, but I heard this type of reasoning all the time as a faithful mormon. And sometimes it does have a lot more to say about the person spewing the judgement/hatred/shame than the person they are talking about.

    In the end, one might ask why I care what other people think, particularly those who apply such stringent (sp?) standards. I think most of us in the end have learned how to ignore these types of comments. I just think it’s worth noting that for some of us (me) – this was a big reason why I didn’t feel the mormon faith was very inclusive or understanding.

  7. mermaid says:

    I agree – the mormon faith does not foster inclusivity, understanding or compassion. It is very judgmental as a whole. I hope it becomes a little more mature down the road. This is also the reason I feel disaffected. Way too much judging and not enough compassion and understanding in the church. It was hampering my growth.

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