I hear a bit of talk of late regarding the line: the event that would be sufficient to push someone out of the church. As in, what would cross the line for you? Where do we draw the lines? Sometimes also referred to as a camel-back-breaking straw, the line is supposed to be some objective standard. Once the line has been invoked in real life, then it will mean [the church is false; Joseph Smith was a very, very bad man; my tithing was wasted; or some other such]. I think the existence of the line should be taken for granted; it is relatively easy to imagine circumstances where your faith in the church would be sufficiently shaken to question its nature or to go further and decide that you were mistaken about it. The harder question is what does the existence of the line mean?
Perhaps the first thing it should mean is that we should all have a bit more patience with and compassion toward those folks whose line has been crossed. Once you acknowledge that your continued faith may not be the result of superior faith or resilience in the face of trials, but rather the reality that your line simply hasn’t been crossed yet, then deriving some sense of self-worth from the mere existence of continued faith should falter. Consider the precariousness of your existence, much less your faith; how much control do you really have over your life? How much of your sense of control is delusion in the face of circumstances that reason dictates are uncomfortably random? I’m not denying the existence of God or his ability to intervene in human life; I am saying that knowing when God has actually intervened and when God hasn’t is difficult and how you crop that picture is affected by what you wish to see. So my continued faith and another’s lack thereof has just as much to do with the filters applied to the world around us as it does to the events, thoughts, and emotions of our lives.
At the same time, it should also mean that those whose line has been crossed should have a bit more patience and compassion toward the faithful. Some discussion of the line appears like self-justification. “My definition of the line is not unreasonable; anyone who was really thinking or truly empathetic would agree with me that the line has now been crossed.” Since it is thought that the line is somehow objective, then it seems crazy that there are people, for whom you would think the line had been crossed, who are still faithful. You might think them liars or profiteers; you might assume that they simply aren’t as smart as you. I’m told of members who’ve been told that there was no way that they believed in the church really, because they seemed like smart people; they must pretend for family or community reasons.
Other more-sophisticated thinkers will acknowledge that the line isn’t really objective, but then they’ll argue that the subjectivity of the line is what makes it objectively untrue. “Do you want to live in a community where many people think they’d kill their firstborn son if they fervently believed God was asking them to do so? Do you want to live in a community with a history of women being treated similarly to the way that they are treated in the FLDS community? In a community where arguably some are still treated like women among the FLDS? Do you want to live in a community that is actively hostile to LGBTI folk?” How one chooses a community isn’t always conscious and isn’t always rational; but deciding whether you stay is, right? If the community crosses your line, doesn’t staying mean you’ve crossed it right along with them?
Sometimes former believers espouse this with the same missionary zeal that they once used to persuade people to join the faith. They ask you about your line and then they search for circumstances, hypothetical or otherwise, that might push you over your line. In this, they are motivated by the same love that motivated Lehi to think of his family when he tasted the fruit of the tree of life. You find something good, something that makes the world make sense to you, you want to share it with the people you love, especially if you see them following paths similar to the paths that led to your line crossing. It’s not that you need them to cross the line per se (although that would probably make some communication easier, less fraught); it is that you want to spare them the pain of what you considered to be a painful line crossing or, worse, a painful continued faithful existence.
When Solzhenitsyn wrote that the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart, I don’t think he was just saying that all people carry good and evil within them (although we all do). I think he was also acknowledging that we all draw that line for ourselves. What would push me over the line is not what would push you over the line. Nor, truth be told, is there really a line. There is just us, people who have to make decisions regarding how to understand the world. Pretending that some set of circumstances solely drives our decision-making, even if in only a linguistic sense, separates us from our responsibility, our agency. Just as membership in a community doesn’t absolve you for making bad moral choices that are popular or considered necessary within the community.
So all of us will encounter some line and react in the way that best suits us. Some will support the status-quo, finding peace in acknowledging their limitations. Some will speak out but not leave, finding peace in doing what they can. Some will find no peace in the church, walking away and hoping to spare others the pain they’ve felt. Finally some will just fade away, avoiding both conflict and complicity, their decisions unregistered anywhere but in their own hearts. When I consider all these choices (and there are, of course, more), I’m not sufficient to judge who is right and who is wrong. They all make a kind of sense to me. That my line inclines me a certain way does not mean that I find other lines inferior; they are just not for me.
My friend Jacob noted on facebook that Rilke said “Fundamentally and precisely in the deepest and most important things, we are unspeakably alone.” Our being, our hope, our divinity, and our line are not really open to persuasion or really capable of persuading others. There are limits on what we can really communicate (even outside of social media). For now, I’m trying to assume that you all are just doing your best to understand the world, like we all do, and that you’re justifying your dreams, your hopes, and your lines, like we all do. I just hope that you extend to me the same courtesy. Otherwise…