A handful of people have asked me over the last few months about the infamous CES Letter, which is purportedly responsible for assisting thousands of people to leave the LDS Church. What do I think about it? How would I answer every one of the issues it addresses? I haven’t left the Church so how would I refute it? Enough people have inquired privately about this, that I decided to sit down and write a response, which depending on your point of view might not be worth the two cents I paid for it, but it is what it is.
First, I hope it’s obvious that no one is under any moral or intellectual obligation to somehow become aware of and then exhaustively analyze every possible supposed defense of or attack on their faith or community or even their beliefs about ostensibly non-religious issues. I’m unaware of any compelling argument that requires me to read this or that in order to “make the right decision” about anything.
However, I have perused this particular document, and having been involved in Mormon studies and (graduate studies in general) for several years, I’ve seen enough to recognize it as more or less founded in the same quasi-scientific and point-by-point framework as much of FARMS and FAIR. The CES Letter and FARMS/FAIR are two sides of the same coin. If you set your religious thinking within that kind of framework, then the Letter might have an equal chance to satisfy or devastate or enrage you. There are many members (and leaders) of the church who see the world in this way.
But this isn’t the only way to see the world or religion, and if you are familiar with sophisticated writings by philosophers, theologians, and historians in other faiths (and in some cases in the Mormon faith), you know this is the case, one of the best fruits of an education in the humanities and in theology. I’ve long inhabited this forbidden middle zone where I’m often not considered faithful enough or even dangerous by conservatives and an academic who engages in mental gymnastics to hide the truth from myself by certain progressive Mormons and former Mormons. I’ve come to a fairly peaceful place with all that and see both those sides as equally boring. I like the imagination and creativity and hard work and uncertainty of being in the middle (and yes, that means that the common sin of the other two sides is an aggressive lack of imagination and creativity). I don’t find it to be a frustrating or depressing place. On the contrary I usually find it both intellectually and spiritually exhilarating and I’ll be the first to admit that it’s also an all-too privileged sphere, whose primary sin is its exclusive elitism. That absolutely needs to change, and I’m an advocate for throwing the doors open to any who want to live here and help us figure it out, as well as providing the tools and education to do so. (For the record, I think it’s clear that academic institutions are both a gift and a curse in this regard, and are in need of serious reform).
Anyway. I’m not impressed or angered or dismayed or empowered by the CES Letter, except that it’s a kind of sobering sign and symptom of where we ended up as a culture. I have no reason to disbelieve those who decided it was too painful to remain with the Church, or use the Letter as their exit assist, because I find it painful on a regular basis, so much so that having some kind of painful relationship to institutional Mormonism has almost become a kind of Mormon catechism, embedded in the life of the Mormon who can’t or won’t conform to the kind of persona that contemporary Mormonism has come to demand.
In that sense I find the CES Letter to be a kind of dead scarecrow, planted in a field of mourning and suffering, something like a symbol and a warning for where things have shifted for large numbers of people on no small account (but not exlusively) because of our religion’s fraught and often poorly handled encounter with secular culture. I get that, I live there, too, even if I see the world differently. Does it finally give voice to something I’ve long thought but found hard to articulate? No. I find plenty of things in the Mormon past and present difficult to accept, but for effective communication, and genuine dialogue, form matters as much as content, and the ways in which FARMS/FAIR and then the CES Letter have long sought to illustrate the significance of our religion and set up the stakes for debate I do not find compelling at all, and in many cases I see as unnecessarily detrimental.
This coin, of which FARMs and the Letter are two sides is meant to make things easier, either to stay or to leave. Just drop it in the vending machine slot and out pops a pretty little package full of reasons to help you justify and better articulate your already-held assumptions. But there is a crucial (Kierkegaardian) sense in which the spiritual life is to be made harder, in which both staying and leaving are meant to be difficult and fraught. Not unbearable, of course. Not miserable. But also, not comforting to the point of numbness or willful naivete of internal and external challenges. Whether one stays or leaves, the life of the spirit as well as the intellectual life is meant to be challenging, constantly re-inventing, and paradigm-undermining.
To paraphrase Tom Waits: The Church–and religion in general–can be a hellish place for some and a celestial place for others, but bad writing and thinking are destroying the quality of both our suffering and our joy by obscuring the deeper difficulties and the deeper significance of things that are meant to make leaving or staying much more meaningful and much much more challenging and invigorating.