Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What’s in a Name?

Except for a few years of my life we have always had Volkswagen’s in the family. I have fond memories of camping in the green 1970 transporter that my folks bought new while my dad was in graduate school. I remember the day in 1976 when my brothers and I tried to talk them into getting a VW Campmobile, a yellow one just like Pippi, but we ended up coming home with a Rabbit. Later we bought another Rabbit and then I bought a ’67 Beetle while I was in High School. Shortly after Victoria and I got married we found Pippi, our 1976 VW Campmobile. I’ve always had an affinity for the brand.

VW stopped making the Beetle for the US market in the late 70s. But in the mid 90s they announced that they were going to start production of their New Beetle. We were living in Salt Lake City at the time and Victoria and I made a trip to the dealership to see one. We weren’t in the market for another car. I was just curious about it.

After only a few minutes at the dealership I was ready to go. The car was nice but it just wasn’t what I had expected. The car was so different from the original Beetle that it left me pondering why they even continued to call it a Beetle. The Beetle, the original one designed by Dr. Porsche, had a flat-four air-cooled engine in the rear and was rear-wheel drive. All of those things are significant defining characteristics of the car. Yet this New Beetle had a straight-four, transversely mounted water-cooled engine in front of the car and was front-wheel drive. The New Beetle would resemble the original more if you drive it around backwards everywhere. Except for the rounded body styling it did not resemble the original at all. It was much more similar to the Golf, which I later found out the car was based on. Mechanically it was a Golf with just a throwback body styling. Don’t get me wrong, the Golf is a great car. It just ain’t a Beetle.

On the way home from the dealership I complained to Victoria and waxed philosophic about our experience. So how many details could they have changed and still made me comfortable with calling it a Beetle? I’ve blogged a little bit about this once before. I don’t know the answer to that question. But clearly they had changed too many for me. As cute as this new car was I just could not get comfortable with how drastically different it was. Why didn’t they just call it the VW Retro or something else? But as far as I was concerned it sure wasn’t a Beetle anymore.

For the past several years I’ve been going through a transformation too, not completely dissimilar to the example above.

For my whole life I’ve been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Mormons to most of the world. Mormons have a set of core beliefs that define them. Since I was a young child most of my beliefs have fallen well within the guidelines of the church. I was comfortable calling myself a Mormon and they were comfortable with me.

Like any healthy mind should, I continued to learn. A calling I had teaching Aaron’s Sunday School class got me really studying about the church. I read just about every history and biography I could about the church. After finding more questions than answers using the official, church sanctioned materials I was prompted to look elsewhere for some of my answers. I just couldn’t make certain aspects of the church’s history and doctrine line up without digging a little deeper. As I uncovered new truths, new to me at least, I did my best to incorporate them into my set of beliefs and still continue to call myself a Mormon. One issue at a time and little by little I found myself having to really bend over backwards to make myself fit into the mold that the church was providing. (I’ll spare the specifics of the changes for other posts. I’ve already detailed many of them over the last few years.) How many defining characteristics of being a Mormon could I change and still identify with the name? Like VW did with their Beetle I was rearranging and redesigning massive amounts of technical details while still doing my best to keep a rough tribute to the original.

A few months ago I was in another teaching position at church. The lesson for that day called for me to teach a principle that I no longer believed. In fact I found the whole Old Testament story of genocide difficult to even read. Yet I was being asked to tell the story and then give the official position of the church as if I believed it. I just couldn’t do it. It was an eye-opening experience for me. Just as if I had walked to the back of the car, popped the latch and sat there looking at a spare tire and an otherwise empty trunk rather than the engine compartment I had expected to be there. Things had changed. And I couldn’t stand at the back of the car and pretend that there was an engine back there anymore.

The next week I asked to speak to our Bishop and I told him what I was going through. This would be the third Bishop I’d conveyed my struggle to. At the time I just asked to be released from the teaching position. I just couldn’t be honest with myself and still teach from the official lesson plan.

So on the cusp of this new year I look back at where I was and where I am now. I no longer have so many of the characteristics that used to defined me as a Mormon. My beliefs have changed. Like the Beetle, do I still deserve the name? Am I still a car with a flat-four air cooled engine in the rear with rear-wheel drive? Or have I evolved into something else that deserves a different name? Here’s a little bumper sticker philosophy for you. “If you were accused of being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict?” or in my case, “If I were accused of being a Mormon would there be enough evidence to convict?” I just don’t know anymore. So that round car based on the Golf that VW came out with in the 90s, I’m just not comfortable calling it a Beetle. And whatever I have evolved into in the last several years probably deserves to be called something else too. I’m just not sure what it is yet.


  1. You, my friend, are a freethinker, or someone who "does not accept ideas proposed as truth without recourse to knowledge and reason."

  2. Thanks for your support,Jim. Are there meeting that I need to be attending? Someone from whom I need to buy indulgences? ;)

  3. You're posting this as an intellectual exercise, rather like the Ship of Theseus, but underneath it has to be really, really difficult. Even as an outside observer I know that your Church defines an immense portion of your life, so it's not just a matter of what label you wear for the outside world. Personally I would hope you decide that knowledge and reason are more important than tradition and authority - but knowing that the decision could cause problems in all the important relationships in your life, it would be wrong to criticize you for taking a different direction. Best of luck for the journey ahead!

  4. For the most part I’ve adopted Steven J. Gould’s idea of non-overlapping magisterial. The truth is that there is quite a bit more overlap that Gould wanted to admit. Whenever I have a conflict I lean towards the side of science and evidence. I’m finding that many of my personal relations are already being strained more by me trying to play the good little Mormon than they are by me just being honest. However I’m sure this journey will not be without complication.

  5. No meetings (unless you want to, I suppose), no one from whom to buy indulgences. That's the beautiful thing about it. You are your own man and a part of humanity. I think it's far better to think about what values and principles you share with others rather than beliefs. Your value of reason and evidence, balanced by your ethics, seems to point this way as well.

  6. WOW, this is my first time visiting your blog. I do call myself LDS for now but over the passed 8 years it has been a roller coaster. I appreciate your very honest post.

    ~ Lauri Chandler

  7. Lauri, Thanks for reading. I'm not recommending others take this same path, nor do I have any animosity towards the church. In most ways I wish I still felt like I belonged there.
    If you don't mind me asking, what happened 8 years ago?

  8. Michael -
    You have always been a free thinker, using that divine spark of intelligence for all it's worth. I recall how you shared the message of Johnathan Livingston Seagull with us in Sunday School. Interesting how you live the same struggle of Johnathan now. Of course, your answers are yours alone to discover. I wish you courage, faith, hope, and good friends along the way!