Growing up I was taught either the LDS church is true or literally nothing else is true. So naturally when I left the LDS church I became an Atheist. It felt like I had uncovered a huge lie, and it extended into every facet of life. I couldn’t see how miracles and the supernatural could be anything other than a fairy tale. A couple years later I found Buddhism and I loved how it helped me discover myself and accept reality as it is (and not what I wanted it to be). It provided tangible benefits in the here and now such as recognizing my strengths and weaknesses and what I need to to do tend to both of them, help me more fully understand my relationships to others and what I need from them, and help me understand how to enact change for the better in my life. Best of all, it could be practiced without the need for a belief in the supernatural. It was so appealing to me that I decided to take a ministry course to get a firm understanding of it.
One fascinating thing that studying Buddhism with a Mormon background has shown me is that there is no real Buddhist canon. Thousands of writers throughout thousands of years have written their unique perspectives and thoughts on the past, present, and future. Some of these writings are completely contradictory to one another. Despite that, they are all allowed to consider themselves Buddhist, and their writings make up a lot of what many Buddhist sects consider “scripture”. This is a stark contrast from the Mormon tradition I was raised in. No one is allowed to have differing points of views or scriptures from the current administration. If you point out any contradictions in the scriptures, from past administrations, or hold a belief that was contradictory to the current administration, you risk being labeled an apostate and outsider. You risk being excommunicated and exiled. Moving theology forward is a gift and power from God that is only given to a very few.
Then the other night I was hit with a realization: Most faiths use a standardized story to communicate the morals and ideas of their day and location. Christians use the stories in the bible, Muslims use the quran, Buddhists use their sutras, Hindus use the Vedas and Upanishads. Each of them have their favorite characters that are deified or nearly so. However, when you take these stories for what they are, literally and simply stories, you can learn a deeper meaning to the stories depending on who is telling the story. There are people who see Jesus as a loving and caring man who was the defender of the marginalized and those lessons should be applied to those that are marginalized today. Then there are people who demonize the modern marginalized based strict obedience to 2,000 year old moral codes. How they interpret the same story and character is radically different, but to them its the true interpretation. However, I believe this is more of a reflection of the person, culture, time, location, and moral beliefs of those that are telling the story. They have used these stories to tell others about themselves and how they gain a greater sense of peace, how they relate the their fellow human beings, and where they and others belong in the universe. This is why scriptures should not be seen as historical documents, but rather vehicles for conveying ideas and morality in a generation. Theologians of all faiths across thousands of years have used their scriptures as a vehicle of conveying their generation and location’s morality. They have the freedom to interpret the same stories in many different ways. Some even have the ability to add to or change the stories.
I am not sure I believe in any scriptural story to be literal. I don’t know if there are gods, heavens, hells, or reincarnation. What I do know is that what’s on the other side of death is unknown, and that’s kinda scary considering how many humans have lived and died. There are some that say we should live as if there is no afterlife and enjoy the life we have been given now. If there are gods and they are just, they will welcome us based on us living a good life. They explain away near death experiences by saying its a result of your brain flooding with chemicals such as DMT. Others say that we should conserve our life for a more favorable afterlife. If there is a God he should be obeyed. They say that near-death experiences are the result of you temporarily crossing over to the afterlife. I’m not sure these 2 points of view have to be mutually exclusive. There is historical evidence that introducing chemicals into your body produces divine and spiritual experiences. When using substances this way, they are known as “entheogens”. Entheogenic usage can be found with the Greeks in the Dionysian Mysteries with ergot (LSD), some Native Americans and peyote and ayahuasca, Buddhists with dutura, Mazatecs with salvia, Christians and cannabis, and many others. Nearly every religion and civilization has used entheogens at some point because of how powerful spiritual experiences can be when they are seen as tools. You need look no further than the Marsh Chapel Experiments to show that even for modern-day life-long religious practitioners using these tools helps produce one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. The stories, experiences, and perspectives that come out of these experiences are very introspective, and convey a lot about how we understand and think about not only ourselves, but those around us and how we relate to them, as well as the universe and how we relate to it.
One thing I am being very weary of is people and organizations who seek to hijack your sense of spirituality to put themselves in a more favorable position. They promise you answers for that longing for story, peace, connection, and belonging, but in return you have to give them your money and complete obedience. To do otherwise would label you as a sinner, evil, mislead, unenlightened, etc. This is such a destructive thing! I have seen this happen to and by many people. I experienced it with the LDS church, certain Atheistic groups, and leaders of Buddhist communities. They entice people with promises of fulfillment. They use them as pawns to give themselves money, power, fame, and sex. Threaten them with branding them as evil, outsider, lazy, immoral, and everything else you can say about a person. Then they leave you incredibly spiritually wounded.
Many Exmormons see themselves as being immune to this pattern since they broke out of it once before. However, they often fall right back into the same habits, just with a new spiritual tradition. For a long time I felt pressured by my fellow Exmormons to conform to a gnostic atheistic point of view (which means to be 100% certain there is no divinity). To say otherwise would put you at risk of being labeled as stupid, mislead, or cultist (which is a term that has a real definition, but is often too broadly used by Exmormons to include any sort of theism). It’s ironic how it’s so prevalent in both Exmormon and Mormon communities to go to extremes and ostracize outsiders in an attempt to get them to conform. It’s almost like they’re 2 sides of the same coin. Conforming has never been my strong suit. Despite being an Exmormon, I now see myself as an agnostic theist. I’d like to believe that there is some sort of divinity and afterlife. I am searching through many of previous theologians’ ideas to see if any of their concepts ring true for me. I am also (safely) exploring these things for myself through entheogenic use. I want to find a story that gives me a greater sense of peace, connection, and a sense of belonging in the universe. This story may just be a representation of my inward self and how I relate to the universe, my fellow humans, and myself, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
I don’t know where my spiritual journey will take me. Its already taken me to the Mormons, Atheists, and Buddhists. Perhaps it’ll take me to the Jains, Muslims, Christians, or Hindus next. Perhaps I’ll learn from all of them and create my own story that conveys and gives me that greater sense of peace, connection, and a sense of belonging in the universe. One thing is for sure, though: I’m excited about the journey I’m on.