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.


  1. Wow, you have put so eloquently the conclusions that I have been recently reaching in regards to my faith and the necessity of my spirit and intellect taking a more active role. I have sort of been on religious auto pilot and honestly, didn't have any reason to think or question,it is only lately with Prop 8 that I have felt the need to really reach inside and carve out what I really feel and believe with all aspects of the Gospel.

  2. Jen,

    Auto pilot is such a telling term. I know what you mean. For some reasons its really easy to be in a place where we are doing the basics but not putting a lot of effort, thought or spiritual energy into it. Prop. 8 seems to have been important in getting some of us to really engage spiritually. So I think we had similar experiences in that regard. For me the result has been a revitalized faith. It sounds like the result may have been the same for you.