Friday, March 13, 2015

Mormon-to-Orthodox converts: Symeon.

This week I am excited to present my interview with fellow Mormon-to-Orthodox convert, Symeon. Symeon was the first LDS person I met who shared my interest in Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and has been a great conversation partner along the way. I hope you enjoy what he had to say.

MtO: There seem to be two main categories that those with an LDS background fall into. First, there are individuals who are or were faithful, active participants, fulfilling their callings and other LDS-specific duties (i.e. temple service, mission service); then there are those who have an LDS background, but have never been particularly active, or have been semi-active at best. Tell us about your LDS background and whether or not you see yourself as falling into one of these two categories.

How many generations of your family have been LDS?

Symeon: Multi-generational active Mormon. Lived the complete, full Mormon experience: born under the covenant, primary, priesthood, served a mission, married in the temple. Taught early morning seminary and Institute for a period of time, as well as adult Gospel Doctrine and Gospel Principles. My father's family were the first to join and stay in the state of Kentucky (around 1900 CE) and pretty much every ward and branch in Kentucky has at least one cousin of mine in it. My mother's family are direct descendants of Ezra T. Benson, apostle to Brigham Young. They crossed the plains and had multiple wives. Ezra Taft Benson, the president of the LDS church in the 1980s, was my grandmother's cousin.

Where did you grow up? Were you and your family active in the LDS faith?

I grew up in rural Kentucky. This means that my branch was very small, and my father was the branch president. We were very active. I rarely missed a week of church, and missing two weeks in a row was unheard of. Never smoked a cigarette, never let alcohol touch my lips. We had Family Home Evening pretty regularly and lots of scripture and gospel discussions.

Did you serve a mission?

I served in the Texas Lubbock Mission from 2004-2006. It was by and large a pleasant experience where I learned a lot.

Did you marry in an LDS temple?

Yes, I married in the Louisville, Kentucky temple, which my grandfather helped to build. He was also a sealer and performed our sealing ceremony.

Did you leave the LDS faith before or after learning about Orthodox Christianity? If before, have you been an adherent of any other faith traditions along the way?

Long after. I've known about Orthodoxy since I was a teenager, though it never seemed like a church I could actually join until a couple years ago.

How did you find out about Orthodox Christianity?

This is an interesting story (to me anyway). When I was a young deacon in the LDS church (around 12 years old or so) I filled out a card I found in a magazine to join the "History Book Club," which meant that I got to choose 5 free history books to be delivered straight to my door. Unfortunately, it also obligated my parents to buy more books, but I wasn't really thinking about that when I filled out the card. I had read a little bit about the Byzantine Empire in my world history textbook and I was intrigued and wanted to know more, so one of the books I chose to get was called A Short History of Byzantium by a man named John Julius Norwich.

The book was a quite unflattering treatment of basically the most sordid details of Byzantine history. When the Church was mentioned it was typically in a cynical and light-hearted way. I came away from the book with a burning wonder in my heart. On the surface I thought, "those poor apostate Christians, if only they hadn't rejected the true church they wouldn't have suffered so much." I truly bought the whole Mormon Great Apostasy narrative and the awful details of Byzantine history confirmed to me that the light of the Church had left the Earth by that time.

But deep down it still impressed itself deeply upon me. It was a strange mixture of feelings. I wondered what the Byzantine church was like, why it seemed to generate so much controversy and conflict, what the Byzantines were seeing in church that I wasn't seeing. Why these Christians would willingly go to their deaths to defend what I saw as an apostate form of Christianity. It planted a seed within me that didn't sprout for some time.

Along the way I picked up little bits of interesting facts about Orthodoxy: their view of the priesthood, early narratives about the Apostles and early Christianity that seemed to run counter to the Great Apostasy narrative, and especially views about Theosis. I still found many foundational doctrines to be ridiculous (like the Trinity) but I couldn't shake this idea that Orthodoxy had kept true doctrines in a special way through history.

On my mission I considered myself an "expert" in early Christian history based on my knowledge gained from my history books as well as The Great Apostasy by James E. Talmage. I studied that book front-to-back and believed every word of it. One day, while knocking doors in West Texas, I knocked into the house of an Orthodox deacon. I believe he was a deacon - I have searched through my journals and can't find a precise retelling of the event. In any case, when I started to talk with him about all the errors that I saw in early Christian history, he quickly put me in my place. He repeatedly stated that he didn't want to argue with me, but I kept badgering him and finally he threw down a bunch of facts and saints from the first few centuries of Christianity that really shut me up. I realized that I had swallowed the Mormon narrative of early Christianity but that this narrative may have very little to do with what actually happened. I was pretty humbled. But again, this nurtured the seed that had begun to grow within me.

After my mission, I decided to begin to learn about Christian doctrine, not from the point of view of Mormon apologetics, but from the point of view of faithful Christians. It's the same courtesy I wanted others to take from Mormons.

At this same time my faith in Mormonism began to waver. Deep down, Mormonism had never really answered the deepest existential questions I had about reality. Why is reality the way it is and not another way? Where did God come from? Is God the member of a heavenly family? What grounds goodness and morality? Even as a young teenager these questions bothered me (in a very rudimentary and undisciplined way, before I really studied philosophy and theology). I had this unmistakable feeling that Mormonism didn't have any rational grounding - that at its core, it really couldn't answer questions like, "Why are we here?"

This, combined with 1) an increasing awareness and engagement with the biggest problems of Mormon history, and 2) a complete and utter void in my Mormon spiritual life (I found Mormonism to be largely a superficial "feel good" religion that focused so much on "testimony preservation" but no tools for deep spiritual growth as I wanted it) resulted in a blossoming in my heart of the Holy Spirit. I'd always thought I had felt the Holy Spirit in Mormonism, but when it finally hit me (the actual Holy Spirit) everything changed.

So it was the combination of losing faith in Mormonism and really looking into traditional Christianity that my faith in Orthodoxy blossomed. It never would have happened if I'd closed my heart to it.

What are the main factors that drew you to Orthodox Christianity?

At first, it was the superficial resemblance of Orthodox theology to many Mormon doctrines. So when I really examined my beliefs in Mormonism, I realized that what I actually believed was far closer to Orthodoxy than it was to Mormonism.

I'll give one example to keep things short: theosis. I always found the idea that God was one member of an infinite family tree of Gods to be difficult to believe. I just couldn't accept it fully, even though I argued for its truthfulness. Eventually, I gave up trying to defend it and just thought to myself: "I can't accept that there is an infinite or very large number of Gods. The only way that I can really nuance Joseph Smith's teachings in a way that makes sense is by believing that there is One God that exists from eternity, and that we are his spiritual children. And we can progress to be like God and eventually join with Him in his divinity. But we don't take His place or become essentially like Him - instead, we just participate with His divinity, becoming 'gods' in a sense but not becoming God."

But eventually I realized that that's just the Orthodox view of theosis (essentially). That information didn't need to be "restored" by a guy in New England in the 1840s - it has existed on the Earth for 2000 years.

I came to this realization with many doctrines - I rejected Penal Substitutionary Atonement, I realized that the Orthodox temple represents a seamless theological transition from the Old Testament temple (while the Mormon "temple," at best, represents a superficial borrowing of some elements of the temple as understood by the KJV translation of the Old Testament, combined with Freemasonry), I eventually determined that the Mormon concept of "sealings" was completely redundant if you properly understand what our relationship with God is, etc. I even came to accept that the creedal doctrine of the Trinity was far from being the incoherent mess that I believed it was - it was actually a gorgeous, powerful doctrine. And above all, I believe it is True.

So that was the sort of rational conversion to Orthodoxy, but then there was the spiritual conversion. I have experienced the most incredible spiritual depth of my life within an Orthodox context. When I felt the Holy Spirit for the first time it completely blew any conceptions I had of a "burning in the bosom" away. It involved every part of my being. Following a prayer rule (though I struggle with this) has resulted in the strangest but most wonderful spiritual revelations.

Most of all, conceiving of God as truly a Ground of All Being that is present everywhere I go, who sustains my body and soul in existence, who loves me from the inside out, has completely enlarged my soul in ways I never thought possible. As a Mormon, I truly conceived of God as a kind of physical space-man who lived millions of light-years away on another planet, who didn't ultimately create the world (he just shaped or formed it) and did not bring my "intelligence" into existence. I just had to have faith that somehow this being could hear my thoughts, prayers, and could love me. The idea that I could go back and find any help or meaning in that conception of God, at this point, is just laughable. I respect my faithful Mormon family and those really smart Mormon thinkers and philosophers like Blake Ostler and Falcouner, Terryl Givens, Bushman, and the like. But I just don't see any coherence in any Mormon conception of God, except those that more closely resemble the Classical Theist conception.

Did you ever consider any of the other so-called apostolic faiths (Roman/ Eastern Catholicism, Oriental Orthodoxy)? If so, why did you ultimately choose Eastern Orthodox Christianity?

It would be strange of me not to at least consider the Roman Catholic Church, given that being Catholic would be far easier on me and my family than driving an hour each week to a tiny Orthodox parish. Unfortunately, there were just a number of theological issues within Catholicism that I couldn't accept. When I visit Catholic parishes I feel like something has been watered down or lost, especially in the liturgy. There's too much effort to be hip and fun. But that's just my conception. Though to be fair, Aquinas (and really, Edward Feser) was a HUGE influence on my realization that the Mormon conception of God couldn't possibly be correct even in principle. Aquinas converted me to classical theism.

That having been said, I am not a hardcore "the Romans are heretics who need to repent and crawl to Constantinople on their hands and knees" Orthodox either. I see the two churches as a lot closer than probably most Orthodox, and I pray and long for unity. I really like Pope Francis.

What are the main differences or changes you have seen in your life since becoming an Orthodox Christian?

Incredible depth in prayer life. Total peace in a grounded ethical and cosmological worldview. A personal relationship with God in a way that I never thought possible. I wish I could tell myself at 15 that I could have more of a "personal" relationship with a God "without parts or passions" than a God who is literally a super-human person!

What is one thing about the Orthodox Christian faith, or your own personal conversion to Orthodoxy, that you would like LDS people to know?

When I was Mormon, I looked out at the world and viewed it as sinful and unholy. I looked at other Christians with pity that they didn't have the "fullness of the Gospel." I wondered how anyone could be happy knowing that they weren't "sealed to their families for eternity."

I remember being on a mission and riding in a car with a few other missionaries. It was Sunday, and we drove past a liquor store where there were a few people going in and out. I remember we all let out a condescending huff when we saw people buying liquor on Sunday. One of the other missionaries actually said, "I wish we had the authority to just... kill people."

Yep, not only were we all disgusted by these poor souls at the liquor store, but this missionary actually thought that it would be best and most merciful if we were given the authority as missionaries to go and kill them. Like, murder them. I want to think that his statement was in jest, but nobody laughed. I perceived that it came from a weird authentic place.

When I became Orthodox, all those arrows of judgment and pride were turned inward. Suddenly I realized that *I* am the problem. My struggle shouldn't be with other people. My judgment shouldn't point out at others. It should point at myself. I am a violent person. I'm a prideful person. I'm an arrogant person. I'm a sinner. If I really want to make the world a better place, my struggle should be with myself. It's a much harder battle, but way more rewarding and rich. Every time I get tempted to look down in judgment on another person, I look inside myself and ask, "Do I have some of the same qualities I look down on another person for having? How can I fix those things?" Rather than try to fix other people.

Do you have a favorite saint? If so, why is she/ he your favorite?

St. Symeon the Stylite. I read about him when I was an early morning seminary teacher and he just spoke to me. I was floored by the whole story. I just thought, "What could possibly inspire a guy to do something like that?" I was so amazed that I spoke about him in my next sacrament meeting talk! A number of ward members came up to me afterwards and were also amazed by the story. When I became a catechumen I took the name Symeon in his honor. I also like St. Thomas the Apostle, and I've always been drawn to the Archangel Gabriel.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Thanks for the opportunity to get some of these thoughts down.

My pleasure! Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions, Symeon.

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