Friday, March 27, 2009

Liberal, intellectual, progressive Mormons

I've been thinking about what the above terms mean and how they are understood in the Mormon community. As we well know the basic concept of a liberal or intellectual is understood with suspicion in some parts of the Mormon community. Both terms being understood as signaling an individual's distance from and opposition to institutionally defined orthodoxy and the social / political norms of the community (or a portion of the community). These labels are often closely linked to two things:

1) Academic work done on church history that reveals aspects of the historical narrative of Mormonism that have been omitted from official institutional historical narratives. Or that offers different perspectives on Church history. Additionally, such work calls into question (not always intentionally) the motives and accuracy of the institutional historical narrative of Mormonism.

2) The labels are often applied to individual members who go through a sort of crisis of faith when they come into contact with the details of the more challenging aspects of church history. These interactions appear to be defined by specific challenges to the individual's understanding of Church history which then leads them to question other aspects of the institutional narrative of Mormon history and theology.

There are other things that these labels might name but from my reading of Mormon publications such as Dialogue, Material produced by the church, by reading Mormon blogs, and listening to things such as the staying LDS podcasts. There is no doubt that, for what ever reasons, there is a strong link in the Mormon imagination between questioning official historical narratives and the idea of being liberal or intellectual, both understood as pejorative terms. Be that as it may, it should be obvious that neither of these forms of historical challenge have an inherent relation to an individual being an intellectual or liberal. In fact I think the opposite may be true.

As a convert something that stands out to me is that the broadening and sometimes questioning of historical narratives seems to come from people who are lifetime members of the church and who actually strive to be traditional in their beliefs and understanding of Church history. Their crisis of faith seem to arises when credible historical sources articulate historical narratives that are dissonant with the understanding of the church that was developed through church attendance, official church materials, as well as family and community teachings. So these individuals come to feel misled and even betrayed by the institutional church for creating an incomplete or even white washed history. These feelings arise not because the individual in question is an intellectual or a liberal, they arise because the individual is deeply committed to traditional orthodox views of the Church. These individuals are clearly not liberal, and they may or may not be intellectual. They are traditionalists striving to understand how new and challenging information fits into their orthodoxy. If they were liberals or intellectuals to begin with they would have had access to a host of tools that would allow them to encounter new historical information without it becoming a crisis.

As for the historians who study church history they may or may not be liberal or intellectual. Mostly they are academics, (which is not synonymous with being an intellectual) but one would hope that their primary identity is as historians. This does not mean that historians have universal notions of how to do history, or what is defined as critically rigorous when it comes to methodology, or the ability of historians to draw conclusions. It just means they are committed to do the best work they can with the training, tools, resources that they have access to.

All this is to say that despite a cultural mislabeling of personal crisis of faith or challenging historical work as liberal or intellectual. These terms needs to be reclaimed by Mormons who self describe themselves as such, so that a more accurate and positive description can be fostered. In short we should be defined by what we believe rather than by what we don't.

Finally, lets get rid of some of the other basics incorrect assumptions.

1- Being liberal or intellectual is not defined by a dichotomy between orthodoxy / heterodoxy; in which the liberal is defined as holding unjustified and incorrect beliefs that can not be reconciled with accurate and true beliefs found only within a certain notion of orthodoxy.

2- Being liberal or intellectual is not defined by a dichotomy between faith / doubt; where in the liberal is a defined by their doubt in contrast to the robust faith of more conservative or mainstream Mormons.

3- Being liberal or intellectual does not mean that one poses a threat to the faith or beliefs of others. Quite the opposite is true. Liberal theology traditionally provides avenues of exploring many different ways to hold and express our religious commitments, it probes scripture and uses a variety of tools to deepen understanding and provide greater appreciation of history and theology.

4- liberal theology is not a set of ideological values applied to theology, it is more a set of methods, and positive values, approaches to and tools for reading and interpreting scripture, theology, and history that in essence are there to strengthen the community, deepen our understanding of and commitment to living out our religion.

So this has been fairly limited in scope, in another post I will go into the positive work and values of liberal theology and why liberal Mormonism should be thought of as a necessity rather than something to be suspicious of.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Between BYU and Sunstone

A week and a half ago I presented The constant Process at BYU law school. This weekend I present it at the Sunstone West conference. I suspect that these are about as different as two groups of Latter Day Saint's can be so I think the juxtaposition of these events will be interesting. Before going to Sunstone I want to post a few impressions of the BYU event.

One issue that came up in several comments and questions was that of how we reconcile individual beliefs and experiences with official Church doctrine or policy. It was not until the discussion ended that I realized what was really being addressed. These were people who are deeply empathetic to the experience of homosexual friends and family, they feel a commitment to equality and understanding. They are also deeply committed to the Church and to their understanding of what it means to follow the prophet. One young man was visably shaken by this conflict and it clearly causes him a great deal of personal anguish. So this was an example of the need for healing that I had not yet seen. Well intended, thoughtful, and faithful Latter Day saints struggling through the ethical and spiritual work of heeding the call of the spirit, and their conscious, in the context of the call of the Church that would lead them in a different direction. Some individuals were seeking a direct resolution to this kind of conflict, but I don't think that is something we can expect, at least in the short term. It may be the case that not only is it necessary to live in the tension between institutional pressures and individual experience, but there spiritual value in doing so.

As one person pointed out, it is the case that in the Mormon context we have "farmed out" the individual theological work that is really part of being religious people. That there is a tendency to look to the leadership to tell us everything about our theology and religion. The challenge here is that if, as individuals, we are going to really own our individual religious thoughts, lives, and actions, can our theology be strictly received? I don't think so, there is a good deal of work that we as individuals need to do, and the model of received theology does not allow for serious engagement with that work. Occupying positions of tension, not only allows for this kind of work it requires it. It requires specific attention to individual priorities, beliefs, and figuring out what aspects of our faith hold greater sway over us as individuals, what pulls on us and why? How are we to respond? Its worth looking into this sort of thing and learning to live in situations when the answers to these questions are challenging and do not represent a complete synthesis of everything we believe or want to believe, or think we believe.

Another thought is that we need dialogue, not monologue. We need dialogue with our institutional leaders, we need dialogue with each other, we need internal dialogue. It may be the case that the desire for resolution for a clean and consistent theology is really a cultural misrepresentation of how both religion and the individual experience of faith work. One of the things that I am always impressed with is how messy, and how challenging the Hebrew tradition is. The Old Testament is full of the struggles, of the conflicts, and the dialogue with God of the Hebrew people. Considering Job I am struck by how confrontational, and defiant he was in his approach to God. He was not willing to be quiet and put up with his trials. He knew that what he was experiencing was not the punishment or justice of God and he gave voice to that chaper after chapter. Job was in dialogue with his friends who accused him, he gave voice to his individual experience, and he was in dialogue with God. This matters because in the Mormon context there is often social pressure to be quiet, to get in line and to receive the words spoken by our leaders as an authoritative monologue. Obviously this is in conflict with the Mormon notion of agency. But more to the point we inhabit a theological tradition of dialogue, of struggle, of uncertainty (not necessarily a bad thing.)Reclaiming and seeing this tradition of struggle and uncertainty can be a tool for greater commitment and richer spiritual lives.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Spiritual Emphasis

Over at Mormon matters, there is a post from someone who, from the tone of the post I take to be a frustrated progressive Mormon. Its a post that resonated with me despite the fact that I disagree with its perspective. The post ends with the following statement:

"I’m intrigued by my brother’s idea of there being “more than one way to not abide it.” We can abide it by doing what I’m doing–just plugging along, doing my calling, attending church, making a few waves, or maybe just ripples. Or we can do what my brother suggested: ignore the things we don’t like and patiently wait. We can not abide it by trying to make bigger ripples/waves. We can not abide it by leaving—just pack up our marbles and go home.

If there are aspects of either church doctrine or church culture that frustrate you, how do you (not) abide it?"

I think this statement is a good case in point of one of the short comings of how we are encouraged to think about our faith and participation within the Church. This being that "its all about the church" even for this individual who is feeling marginalized the emphasis is on going to church, performing one's calling, and making a few waves. I have great empathy for anyone who feels marginalized within the church but I think the emphasis on not abiding is misplaced, and represents more than a spiritual crisis, its spiritual death. I don't say this as a criticism of the author of the post because it is very easy for what we don't like to take center stage in our thinking, and I acknowledge that. Further, the good news is that there is always the potential for spiritual re-birth.

Even if there are a long list of things we don't like or are uncomfortable with in the Church and its culture, our emphasis should be on the aspects of our spiritual experience, our contact with the divine, our reading of scripture, our contact with doctrine and community that we are passionate about, that are the source of wonder and mystery, and that encourage learning and growth. I have learned this in a very direct way in the past two years. I have had an ongoing fascination with the scriptural theme of hospitality and how our encounters with the other are theologically imagined in scripture. Exploring the possibilities of this imagining as a spiritual, and ethical commitment has benefitted me by fostering spiritual growth, and it is also leading to marvelous opportunities for interfaith dialogue, to provide a message of spiritual healing, both in and out of the LDS community. The thing is, I don't think I would have experienced personal spiritual growth, or be getting such opportunities if my efforts were grounded in something like a desire to make waves at church or advocate for a specific ideological position. Its our deeply held theological commitments or better yet our own deepest spiritual needs that should guide us. Naturally, this is a process, as it may take time to identify what they are and how they can or should find expression in our lives. In the end what I am advocating for is a vision of Mormon faithfulness in which we as individuals own our own faith, own our theological and spiritual priorities, and don't feel that we need to rely on the institution to provide a ready made way for them to find expression.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Religious Left 1.0

One of the things that I'll need to write posts about here and there is the ways in which progressive religious voices are emerging in the public sphere, gaining an audience, describing different aspects of religious experience, telling stories that aren't well known or understood.

Once such emergent voice is that of webcaster Alicia Ross, who has an interview series called One Gay Under God that addresses the spiritual side of GLBT life. She did an interview with Susan Russell yesterday. The interview starts with a question about The Constant Process and touches on Susan and I working together several times. The audio quality is a bit rough but the interview does hit on a number of Susan's essential themes and ideas so its worth a listen. The other interviews posted on the site also look interesting. Check out Susan's interview here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The Constant Process Goes to BYU

Thanks to the significant efforts of my good friend Stuart Mitchel and to the LA Times article about Susan and I, The Constant Process is going to be screened at the BYU Law school next Wednesday March 11th at noon.

As I understand it the screening will take place in the Law School library. The building's abbreviation is JRCLS (J. Reuben Clark Law School). Its located on the corner of Campus Drive and 1200N, the room # is 275-276. Parking is supposed to be a little tricky, the big parking lot behind the school is for permit parking only. There is visitor parking to the south of the law school (across from the wilkinson student center) but it is fairly small and usually congested. So getting there early in order to find more remote parking is recommended.

I am excited about this event because it is an opportunity to screen the film for a Mormon audience and an audience that is concerned with both religion and the law. While the film is not directly about legal matters it does provide an opportunity to have a discussion that gives priority to human relationships, listening, and interpersonal ethics, over the more theoretical or abstract aspects of the law. So if you are in Provo next Wednesday please attend.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Ways of being brought into Community take 2

After discussing this post with Michele this morning, I have given it an overhaul. Basically I think there are two concerns that deserve our close attention in the contemporary situation in which Prop 8 has led to a good deal of distrust and alienation being experienced by religious people of all political stripes.

These two issues are first, the risk that ideology in general and politics in particular pose to specific aspects of our theology. First and foremost our commitment to the other. The second issue concerns finding ways for groups, religious groups in particular, that oppose one another in the public sphere, and that are driven apart by mutual distrust and misunderstanding, to initiate meaningful dialogue with one another. Not for the sake of extending political battles but for the sake of living up to shared theological commitment and teachings.

As I see it the main problem of political involvement for people of faith is that the nature of political competition encourages us to change our view of the other. We trade in the substantial Hebrew and Christian tradition that insists upon our extending generous hospitality to the other, for a view of the other as a competitor who must be defeated in pursuit of extending our own influence over social policy and governance. Another risk is that ideological positioning and belief can reduce the fullness of our theology. For example, not too long ago a friend said in passing that Christ was a socialist. Being liberal I find this an appealing idea but one I need to resist. No doubt, Christ's concern for the poor, the marginal and powerless has sympathies with American socialism of the early 20th century that sought to empower and bring justice to the poor and working classes. But noting that sympathy does not make Christ a socialist. There is no way that Christ can be seen as participating in any modern political ideology. If we attempt to conform our political thought to various aspects of Christ's message found in the Bible, that is one thing but to claim Christ as participant in our own political ideology is another. Its a way of creating a divine endorsement of our views, of asserting our confidence that our political beliefs are correct and that others need to believe and behave as we do. This is a move that we can't make no matter what our political views are and no matter how much passion we have for them.

What I am interested in trying to work through in the public sphere is finding ways to dislodge a vision of a theological commitment to community and to the other from a situation in which politics keeps trying to extend its influence and control over how theological commitments find expression in the public sphere.

There are a number of tools that we have access to that are particularly helpful. I'll start with just one that I gain access to through Walter Brueggemann. One thing that he describes in his essay A Welcome for the Others is the reality and memory of exile as influencing both the social condition and theology found in the Old Testament. Brueggemann uses the exile and the emphasis on gathering that follows it as providing context and impetus for imagining a radically inclusive society in general, and an inclusive Christian community in particular.

One things that both Mormons and gays have in common is the reality and memory of exile. Or more directly the reality and memory of persecution, which is actually ongoing for both groups, all be it in different ways. Further, the two groups may not understand or even be aware of each other's history and what each group has overcome, as well as, the strength and support found in both communities. This is one possible point of dialogue between the Mormon and Homosexual communities. Both groups have first hand knowledge of literal exile, of violence being done against them, of being misunderstood, criticized, mocked, devalued and dehumanized. In short both groups know well the experience of being other.

During and after Prop 8 it was apparent to me that numbers of people in both communities viewed each other with distrust, suspicion and as competitors or enemies. This is a natural result of Prop 8 and the aggressive public discourse that surrounded it. As I think many people knew in advance Prop 8 going one way or the other would not, did not, settle anything but it continues to create social and religious divisions. Divisions that we need not accept.

One thing we should be able to accept is that two communities that share identities as a persecuted peoples can and should be able to come into empathic dialogue with other persecuted peoples. That each can look for ways to mourn with those who mourn and find a common bond in each other's stories, heart ships, and triumphs in the face of persecution. This can be the basis of a dialogue initiated from the theological desire to practice ethical listening, it can be a way of learning how to stand down from our defensive positions in relation to each other. It can be a way for us to find compassion and care. This sort of dialogue is difficult and demanding. The resentment and distrust are real making empathy that much harder to desire. Nonetheless, such dialogue is a necessity if we believe that theology must not be subordinated to ideology.

And I think that may, in fact, be the larger issue here; that politics continues to find wedges to drive people apart, encourage distrust, and to give into our own worst impulses to divide and give up on each other, and that this is a direct threat to our best religious teachings and impulses.