Jerry Earl Johnston: Why leave one faith for another?

Published: Friday, July 8 2011 7:05 p.m. MDT

I have never left one religion to join another. But I've seen a thousand people do just that.

The focus, when they do, is almost always on the joy of conversion and the freshness of a new life. But I know that getting comfortable in a new religion can be bedeviling. It's a trial that religion writers should spend more time examining.

As a member of the LDS Church, I've seen people from many cultures and traditions embrace Mormonism. In Bolivia, back in 1969, we missionaries would always be startled to learn that a new member of the church had chosen to hold onto a statue of favorite saint or a favorite prayer from their former faith. Sometimes they'd hold on to former habits and beliefs.

It shouldn't have surprised us.

Part of religion is about feeling peace in a turbulent world. And holding to past practices that feel comfortable is one way.

I've seen the same thing in those who've left the LDS faith for other religions. They almost always take a several cherished pieces of Mormonism along with them.

In high school, my son's friend bolted from Mormonism to become a Buddhist. About a month later he was back in the LDS fold.

"I thought you'd become a Buddhist," I said.

"Nah," he said, "too many new vocabulary words."

Today he doesn't attend church, but his LDS idiosyncrasies constantly surface.

I also had a friend who fell in love with a Jewish woman and left Mormonism to become a Jew. He was fairly well-known and speculation continues to this day about why he made the switch.

Some feel he must have found that Judaism made better bedrock for his faith, or that the stories from the Jewish tradition were older than Mormon stories and somehow more credible.

I think he fell in love, wanted to get married, and had to convert to close the deal.

The two of us still meet from time to time to discuss those cherished pieces of Mormonism he's kept with him.

Some people become disillusioned with LDS doctrine, but still harbor deep feelings of spirituality. I've seen such folks look for a meaningful compromise with the Unitarians or the Episcopalians. Some people become seduced by Catholicism and its wealth of art, history and brilliant thinkers.

Some even find a happy home in their new faiths.

Others, by nature, never do. They are, at heart, spiritual nomads. Their gypsy spirits won't allow them to settle. They battle wanderlust.

They are eternal seekers.

Given all the religious swaps and changes that happen — especially in the United States — it would be tempting to cast the "changers" as wishy-washy souls.

But Americans are always looking for something better — a better mousetrap, a better lifestyle, a better leader, a better tomorrow.

Something in our DNA keeps us pushing us to turn over new stones.

It's natural that attitude would seep into our religious lives.

It's not a fault, it's a trait.

The fault would be if we resigned ourselves to a life without curiosity and risk — to a life free of the pain that comes with change.

That, indeed, would be "spiritual death."

EMAIL: jerjohn@desnews.com

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