Some people feel like the church creates unhealthy conformity, and prevents people from discovering their true selves. I have some first-hand experience.
Middle school is a rough time for many. I was no exception. It is a time for some of the more rocky sections of the path towards identity formation.
I was a scrawny, awkward, anxiety-prone middle-schooler. I didn’t do sports, and I didn’t really identify with the “nerds” or the “gamers” either. I liked school and learning, but I had an easier time making friends with teachers than with most of my peers.
From middle school onward through high school, I had a go-to identity, for better or for worse: “The Mormon.” It was odd, because there were quite a few other Mormons (we were still a minority), but the others all seemed to have something else visibly special about them to broaden their identity (they played sports, they were very social, etc). None of them, as far as I know, was known as “The Mormon.”
It’s a curious thing when a religion becomes one’s primary identity for relating with others. Its not quite satisfying, because the identity doesn’t really feel unique or chosen. It causes all kinds of minor hypocrisies, as well, because it is tempting to behave in religious ways simply to uphold that identity in the eyes of others. It took me many years to sort out all the conflicting motivations that solidified during those years.
Even for church members who didn’t have as intense an experience with this “problem” as I did, I think the point is still relevant. When you are in a group, it is tempting to rely upon that identity to some extent in order to avoid the hard work of discovering who you really are, and what you really think. It requires courage and introspection to get ahead of this problem.
I think those who feel threatened by “group think” in the church, and who feel bothered by the pressure to conform, are often people that are still going through this phase and have not fully self-differentiated. They feel threatened because their sense of self is so fragile, they are afraid it might be violated by the strength of the overarching church culture.
On the other hand, I have noticed that the most self-knowing, self-confident people have little trouble fitting into groups that they choose to be a part of, including the church. The fact that the group doesn’t always agree with them is an obvious inevitability that doesn’t bother them. They manage these differences with grace, without feeling threatened, because they know they are in full control of their own souls no matter what the group does. They have become independent of peer pressure. They belong to groups in order to participate in a community of individuals. There are wonderful benefits to a community. They contribute what they individually see fit, and they absorb what they individually see fit.
Now, you may be thinking, “but doesn’t the church teach us to obey? To follow the prophet? To consecrate all we have to building the kingdom of God? It doesn’t teach us to do whatever we see fit.” Yes, that is all true. But here is the truth that changed my perspective: you can’t fully give of yourself until you truly are in independent control of yourself. Also, you can’t be fully committed to the gospel until you have granted yourself a completely uninhibited choice between what God and the Church has to offer, and the other options around you. This choice cannot be marred by social fear or ulterior motives. I’m not saying that you need to try the various sins the world has to offer in order to compare lifestyles. That is a false short-cut (its really a long-cut), in my opinion. But I am saying that you need to take complete command of your agency by clearing out thought patterns (especially of fear) that rob you of the feeling of being in complete control of yourself and your decisions.
Until these conditions apply, any devotion will be mixed with other motives. Jesus tells a parable that can be used to illustrate the importance of this principle (Matthew 21:28-30):
Imagine a free-thinking, independent, self-aware church member. The prophet comes to that church member and says, “Jackie, I need you to move to Greenland.” The Church member, following his/her initial gut instinct, says no. They list many reasons why they should not move to Greenland, including the welfare of their family. The prophet listens, and then says, “please go home and pray about it.” The church member agrees. In the privacy of their own room, they petition God for guidance. A conviction comes, born by that familiar inner voice with which God speaks to the mind and heart. They call up the prophet, and say they are now ready to go. They prepare for the journey with courage and conviction born of their own personal experience with God.
On the other hand, imagine a submissive but anxious church member who hasn’t ever allowed themselves to question the prophet. They are afraid of what would happen if they did. This isn’t just a social fear, but it is also a fear of losing testimony or some other internal spiritual loss. In essence, they have not become “for themselves,” because they are afraid of themselves. They live in a limited version of themselves, trapped in the “safe” part of their mind. The prophet asks this church member (I’ll call them Alex) the same thing—”The Lord has called you to move to Greenland.” Alex, ever submissive and obedient, accepts the invitation. The prophet councils Alex to go home and pray about it anyway, because he/she will need the strength of the Lord to carry out this mission.
Alex goes home to pray, but because of unresolved insecurities and doubts invading the consciousness, is unable to gain a very clear witness. Consequently, Alex fails to convince his/her family of the importance of this calling because of a very visible lack of self-confidence relating to it. Jackie, on the other hand, brings all of the confidence of a freely made and whole-hearted decision, and like Lehi is able to lead their family with them.
This is just one possible application of the Savior’s great parable. But the moral is the same for all applications. The person who initially said “no” to God ended up doing more. I think God is telling us that we don’t need to be so afraid about offending Him with our initial thoughts or words. We should be honest with how we feel and think. We should not fear being our true, independent selves. However, we can choose to always turn to God and let him educate us. We can then act in faith according to the light He gives us. Humility and courage is the key, not fear. We can courageously think what we are inclined to think, but then we can courageously and humbly ask for more light, because we know that we ourselves are not the highest authority.
So here is one suggestion to those who are stuck in this “problem:” Be a little un-sanctimonious, at least with yourself. If you hear something in General Conference that strikes you as wrongheaded, allow yourself to think, “This is a load of crap.” Then, choose to go home and study it and pray about it. Give God’s servants a chance, even if you disagree. But be honest about your disagreement. Have faith that God can show you what is right. I have a testimony that He will teach you. If not, then this whole religion is a farce. But I believe He wants you to come as you really are to be taught. He wants access to all of it—the seemly and the unseemly, the selfish and the pure. He loves it all. Don’t try to hide it from Him, or from yourself. God doesn’t want to punish you for what you think or what you feel. He does, however, want to educate your thoughts and feelings.
Like the solution to pretty much all of the problems on this blog, this one requires overcoming fear. The main fear that I remember holding me back was this one: If I really unleash my true self, maybe it will turn out that I’m not a good person after all, or at least that I’ll make some really bad, difficult-to-correct mistakes. Maybe all this fear-based obedience was just “holding back” some kind of defective spirit from failing miserably. This turned out not to be true, and I have a testimony that it won’t be true for you, either. I don’t believe there is such a thing as a defective spirit. The other fear was (subconsciously, although I wouldn’t have admitted it to myself): If I allow myself to think independently too much, I might loose my testimony. But now, I don’t think one can really have a full testimony without thinking independently.
Because we are taught to ask of God, I think the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is uniquely able to straddle the conformity vs. individuality conundrum. We actually operate on the principle that God is there, and will answer the prayers of individuals with regard to what the Church is doing collectively. This is an incredibly bold position. If it is true that God really will confirm these things to us, it allows us to be both independent spiritual agents AND members of a collective, because our individual seeking leads us in the same direction (even if we come from different starting points). We can be the mystic seeker AND the obedient churchgoer. What a unique privilege we all have. This would never work if God weren’t real and really leading the people of this church. I hope we can all have the courage to become “for ourselves” in every way, and still choose God because He is real and because He cares. He wants us to come as we are.