The Future of Religion in Provo, Utah

Forging onward, ever onward.

Provo is beautiful. Photo by Devin Justesen.

In 2011, I discovered, as faithful LDS scholar Richard Bushman phrases it, that “the dominant narrative of Mormonism isn’t true.” I’d been a Mormon living in Utah Valley my whole life. I’d served a two-year mission, graduated from Brigham Young University, married in the temple, and had my first kid. Then one day, after reading a stack of books and articles about Mormonism, something clicked. Mormonism couldn’t adequately answer—and would never be able to answer—the questions I had about the religion. The dominant narrative wasn’t true.

I no longer knew how to live. I’d relied on my religion for my ethical framework, and I was planning to rely on it to help me raise my kids. My wife, who had arrived at similar conclusions about Mormonism, shared these concerns. Without this framework, how would we get what we wanted: To be decent people who raise decent kids?

To answer this question, I searched for ground to stand on—something separate from the culture of consumerism that has saturated America, with its worship of wealth, cheap pleasure, and vapid celebrity. What I wanted was to be decent, and what I found, again and again, was that one helpful way to define what it means to be decent is to focus on three core ideals: truth, beauty, and goodness.

Eventually, I published a book that illustrates how these ideals can transcend the divide between Mormons and former Mormons. Since then, however, I’ve realized that while talking about truth, beauty, and goodness is helpful, it opens as many questions as it answers, particularly when it comes to raising good kids.

First, there’s a degree to which talking about truth, beauty, and goodness is barely better than saying just be kind. They’re fine ideals in theory, but they’re too vague.

Second, there’s the matter of meaning-making. Mormonism, like all religions, gives adherents a sense of purpose — a story to believe and participate in. What stories can unorthodox and former Mormons live by to give meaning to life?

Third, there’s the matter of community. At its best, Mormonism serves as a weekly reminder to embody other-centered living. I’ve seen countless examples of this in my life: ward members delivering food to the poor, taking care of the sick, and rallying around someone who has just moved in. This past week our bishop stopped at our place to chat about our lives and in the course of our conversation found out our swamp cooler was broken. The next morning he knocked on our door and, even though he must be extremely busy, fixed it. No fanfare, no air of self-importance, no passive aggressive statements or judgment. Just a desire to put his swamp cooler know-how to work and serve the ward.

The point is this: We all know we should serve, but having a weekly reminder at church and a ready-made community can help us actually get out and do it.

The Provo River Trail. Photo by August Benjamin.

Values, purpose, and community. These are some of the topics I still wrestle with after writing When Mormons Doubt, which has come to feel more like an introduction than a conclusion.

I’m looking toward what’s next, and I’m struck by how old this story is.

Somewhere in my family line my pioneer ancestors left their Protestant beliefs and took up Mormonism, disappointing family members and friends in the process. The same thing happened when their ancestors left the Church of England, and when their ancestors left Catholicism, and when their ancestors abandoned Paganism, and so on, back to the beginning of religion. A pattern of staying and leaving, like breathing in and out.

Somewhere in my family line my pioneer ancestors left their Protestant beliefs and took up Mormonism, disappointing family members and friends in the process.

At some level, I’m involved in this same journey. I’m currently less connected than I have been to mainstream Mormonism, but more connected to my pioneer ancestors. Like them, I’m looking toward the horizon.

What will the next evolution of sacred community look like? How do we create spaces that get at the heart of what it means to be decent in a way that other institutions—including schools, corporations, and governments—don’t? How do we organize to fight the soullessness of consumerism?

For me, no other questions are more urgent. The false religion of consumerism is eating us alive. It marches dead-eyed with a primary mission to line the pockets of shareholders, decency be damned. Too many companies (and governments and religions) are structured to make the powerful more powerful, too many workers flounder in jobs devoid of meaning, too many products inflict damage on our health, on our poor, and on our planet. We produce around half a billion tons of plastic every year and recycle less than 10% of it. It seeps into our soil and oceans and bodies. In this way and so many others, we’re committing mass genocide on our descendants. If we want to be decent, we can’t ignore this pain.

I want to help. Where do I start?

Perhaps in the same way any of us start. Where we live. In my case: Provo, Utah.

What I’ve realized since writing When Mormons Doubt is that being decent, by definition, can’t happen in theory. It can’t happen in solitude. It requires community.

Being decent can’t happen in theory. It can’t happen in solitude. It requires community.

I write this vision with the hope that it resonates with a handful of readers who share an interest in what I explore here. Sacred community has a power that many other forms of organizing doesn’t have. It represents one way forward—a way that calls to me. I want to start a conversation about values, stories, and community and then, if anything here resonates with you, work together to turn these ideas into a reality.

1. Getting Specific About Values

For the past several months, my family and I have spent family home evenings brainstorming about our values. What values do we want to develop and nurture in our community?

Increasingly, we’ve focused on intellectual, spiritual, and social health—with physical health thrown in for good measure. Based on these values, our primary intention as a family might look like this: Be physically, spiritually, and intellectually healthy so we can serve others in our unique way.

Flowers blooming in Provo. Photo by Aubrey Rose Odom.

Here’s what these values look like right now, after input from our kids. I share them here, again, as a way to open a conversation. What would you change? What values will serve as a foundation for the sacred communities of tomorrow?

Physical health

  1. Nutrition — Eat real, nutrient-rich food. Consume mindfully.
  2. Exercise — Commit to regular endurance, strength, and flexibility training.
  3. Sleep — End the day deliberately (not mindlessly looking at a screen). Get enough sleep.

Spiritual health

  1. Wisdom — Reflect daily on sacred texts from the world’s wisdom traditions.
  2. Stillness — Find time each day to be still. Live in simple, clean surroundings.
  3. Nature — Commune with nature, both in the sense of trees and flowers and also in the sense of the divine.

Intellectual health

  1. Humility — Admit you’ve been wrong and will be wrong again.
  2. Curiosity — Stay hungry for learning. Question your assumptions, especially your most tightly held assumptions.
  3. Grit — Develop the intellectual rigor of an academic. Reject pseudoscience, particularly in medical, spiritual, and religious circles. Read difficult texts. Read the classics.

Social health

  1. Family — Care about the evolving needs of each family member. Love them where they are, on their level.
  2. Friendship — Invest in friendship and sacrifice for friends. Enjoy your time with them and be fully present when you’re with them.
  3. Compassion — Feel the pain of those who suffer most, including ancestors and descendants, and use your heart and head to know what you can do to alleviate that pain.

I like these values in part because they could work for people inside, in between, and outside of Mormonism. They could bridge cultural divides in Provo and help me and my kids move upward from where we are today with the broader community.

These values also clarify some of the shortcomings our community in Utah Valley currently faces.

For instance, when it comes to Mormonism as practiced on the Wasatch Front, the culture sometimes hurts physical health by featuring an overabundance of simple carbs and sugars at ward activities, dampens spiritual health by falling prey to soulless Sunday School lessons and crass consumerism, insults the intellect via whitewashed talks on religious history, and cuts fringe members (including LGBT brothers and sisters) out of the social circle.

When it comes to ex-Mormonism, the culture sometimes overindulges in potentially toxic substances such as alcohol, replaces spirituality with scientism and crass consumerism, and breeds heartless hostility toward believing Mormons.

Regardless of belief, my hope is that these values (or better ones you come up with) will help all community members enjoy higher well-being.

Big Springs Park, Provo. Photo by James Brown.

2. Searching for Stories of Meaning and Purpose

Of course, listing values can ring hollow, like an empty self-help strategy. To add gravity, values must be part of a bigger story — a story that explores existential questions about where we came from, why we’re here, and where we’re going.

To a degree we all must learn to be at peace with the possibility we’ll never find answers to these questions. We must enjoy the mystery.

And yet we all must live as though we have answers of some kind, whether they come from religion or from our broader culture. So, what stories might future sacred communities embrace?

Here’s my inconclusive attempt to explore an answer.

Where We Came From

We came from our ancestors, going back to primitive humans, the apes, small mammals, reptiles, multicellular life, and even single-celled life. We came from the mountains and rivers and soil. At the deepest level we are our ancestors, and they are us.

We’re also each part of a grand, mysterious human narrative that our ancestors around the world have tried to make sense of. Because of this, we must embrace wisdom wherever it is found, whether it’s in the Bhagavad Gita, the Tao Te Ching, the Torah, Greek rationalism, or elsewhere. We can’t afford to ignore the wisdom that was born before our birth.

Why We’re Here

One purpose of life is to experience it completely. This requires tuning into the deep satisfaction that can come from simply being. As Mr. Rogers repeatedly sang, “It’s such a good feeling, to know you’re alive.” We must learn to be in tune with that good feeling — an ordinary experience that’s always present (and felt once we notice it).

Another purpose of life is to evolve. This requires fully giving ourselves to the project that calls to us right now. As Marcus Aurelius wrote, “Nothing more is required of us than to accomplish well the task at hand.” What this means will differ depending on who we are, but it will likely entail becoming physically, spiritually, and intellectually healthy so we can serve others in our unique way.

As we experience each moment of our lives completely and serve from our souls, we can’t help but evolve toward our highest potential. That’s true at both the individual and collective level.

Where We’re Going

As we evolve, our species will eventually become like the gods, acquiring superhuman intelligence. Whether it happens in 1,000 years or 10,000 years or longer, this is inevitable (as long as we don’t destroy ourselves and the planet in the process). Just think of how godlike—in the best and worst sense—contemporary civilization would seem to humans 10,000 years ago. Our reaction to what our species will eventually become will almost certainly be similar.

Our purpose, then, is to direct evolution in a positive way, to deliberately make the future not only more intelligent but also more compassionate than the past. We must be the ancestors of better gods than we’ve been given.

What I’ve listed above might seem like nothing more than fluff. But I believe there’s clarifying power in exploring these topics, power that can energize our values.

For example, once I believe that the ultimate purpose of life is to enjoy each moment and evolve toward better well-being, then I must deliberately cultivate gratitude for the present, and I must develop a greater sense of urgency about doing my part to ensure we survive and thrive as a species. I can’t just sit around and binge Netflix or mindlessly browse the Internet or simply acquire more wealth than other people. I can’t be “a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments,” as George Bernard Shaw puts it. I have to figure out the role I’m meant to play in this grand narrative and live into it. Because I have been given much, I too must give. The future of the planet hinges on my giving. It matters. I matter.

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments...“ — George Bernard Shaw

Just as with my list of values above, these stories about where we came from, why we’re here, and where we’re going could possibly work for those inside, in between, and outside of Mormonism.

And this where we get to the heart of the future of religion.

3. Pioneering the Future of the Sacred Community

When I talk about the future of religion, I’m not talking about rallying people together behind someone who claims to speak on behalf of an omniscient being. That model of religion was something for an earlier time—a time of kingdoms rather than democracies.

Instead, I’m talking about doing the hard, democratic work of building sacred communities for the 21st century. There’s a saying in the Buddhist tradition that the next Buddha (i.e., the next manifestation of Spirit) will be the Sangha (i.e., the community). Not a spokesperson. A community.

I agree. From my perspective, the future of religion will happen wherever soul-sourced, generative conversation happens — where two or more are gathered in communion. In Provo, it will happen in a mix of Mormon, former Mormon, and never-Mormon communities that create and unite around a set of shared values and stories, possibly similar to those listed above or similar to better ideas developed by you.

Inside of Mormonism, it will happen when members take their inner power seriously. Think of how the women’s rights activist Aurelia Rogers pioneered the LDS primary program. The program didn’t come from the top down or because Aurelia had been given a formal calling to create it. It came because she felt compelled to make it a reality. She found her inner voice and evolved her community. Those who feel called to stay in Mormonism might follow Aurelia’s lead. Heaven knows we need an initiative that fights the soulless, vain billboards seen up and down the Wasatch Front.

Outside of Mormonism, the same principle holds true. We all have the power to evolve what we’ve inherited.

BYU campus. Photo by Aubrey Rose Odom.

Personally, I’m looking for what’s next. Not in the sense of finding the One True Community, but in finding communities that are alive for me. To this end, I’m committed to the Lower Lights School of Wisdom, a group that celebrates mindfulness, adult development theory, and wisdom traditions around the globe. I’ve participated in retreats and events with Lower Lights, and I’m blown away by the people I meet there. It’s the single best community I’ve experienced for envisioning and embodying the future of the sacred in way that transcends the divide between believers and non-believers.

I also participate in the Awakening Valley Sangha, a lovely mindfulness community in Provo in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, and the Mormon Transhumanist Association, a group that meets in Provo to explore the future of technology and religion. In addition, I’m involved with Third Space Studios in Provo, where I lead a monthly discussion about what we might build after a faith crisis.

The people in all of these places are amazing. I look up to them and have learned so much from them. They (along with friends and family) are the reason I love Utah.

Each of these communities highlights possible qualities that people in Provo might embody. In addition to these qualities, I want a sacred community that:

  • Includes a place for people of all ages—a place where kids, teens, and adults can explore the sacred with people in their age group.
  • Brings reverence to holidays. I personally feel disenchanted during most holidays, which seem like exercises in accumulating commodities and candy. Why not gather for a meditation on death in the fall? Or gather for a festival of life in the spring? I want to bring back a sense of the sacred to the turn of the seasons.
  • Creates an open, sacred canon that pulls from the world’s wisdom traditions. No privileging of any one tradition, but instead a celebration of beauty wherever it’s found.
  • Keeps the fatherless and widows, the orphans and the imprisoned, close at heart. I want a sacred community that nurtures face-to-face, heart-felt service the way Mormonism does at its best.
  • Honors our ties to the past — and the future. Just as we have an obligation to remember the past, we also have an obligation to organize and fight for the future. I want a community that recognizes we cannot consider ourselves decent if we harm our descendants.

In the end, what I’m talking about is collectively fine-tuning a set of values and stories that can meet the needs of human beings at every stage of life. I’m talking about working together to experience the sacred and achieve heightened well-being. Above all, I’m talking about the mundane but difficult task of being decent.

I can’t get there alone because, again, being decent requires community. If you’re reading this and any of it speaks to you, let’s start a conversation. I’d love to learn from you and work with you on this project. I believe the future of humanity will be better than we can even dream of today.