A question I get a lot at church is that of how studying theology has impacted my testimony. Sometimes people make comments along the lines of how studying the beliefs of others must be quite faith-promoting, with an apparent assumption that the musings of non-LDS religious thinkers are likely so self-evidently ridiculous or confusing that they could only result in my having a greater appreciation for the simple clarity of the restored gospel. Others wonder, by contrast, whether engaging religion academically might be dangerous, might undermine my belief in the LDS church. I am not comfortable, however, with either of these paradigms. What I study has in fact profoundly influenced my faith, but in complex ways.
My first semester of theological work, I was positively giddy, to the point where I would see the word “theology” in my email inbox and find a silly grin on my face. It wasn’t quite real to me that I was actually getting to engage this subject full time. Though I’d dabbled a bit in theology as part of my previous studies, I’d never actually taken a class in the subject, and it was all new and exciting and amazing.
But it wasn’t long before I found myself in a bit of a religious crisis. It didn’t arise so much from the content of what I was studying, but rather from the very fact that I found what I’d heard glibly dismissed as “apostate teachings” or “philosophies of men” to be so tremendously rich. In addition, I found myself in a community where religion played a central role; unsurprisingly, my fellow students and I talked more or less constantly about the subject. Mormonism came up quite frequently in these conversations, and I was quite candid about my views on things, and particularly about the aspects of the Church I’ve found difficult. Yet at the back of my mind, I was haunted by the missionary paradigm, by the stories I’d heard all my life about people who had seen these kinds of situations as opportunities to convert others. I did not feel that I could share a sort of traditional faith-promoting narrative without undermining any authenticity in my relationships. Nor did I feel confident that my fellow students, who were deeply committed to their own religious traditions, would necessarily be better off as Latter-day Saints. But I still felt guilt for not following the script in my head of how I thought a Mormon was supposed to talk about the Church.
My conflicted feelings about the matter only intensified when I took a class on Jewish-Christian relations, in which we discussed at great length the problem of proselytizing, and how approaching people as potential converts in need of the truth makes it difficult to engage in genuine interfaith dialogue. I found myself lying awake at night wrestling with some core religious questions related to the exclusivist truth claims of the Church. This was the beginning of my obsession with the problem of religious pluralism, which is an issue I have found arising again and again in my academic work. I don’t have quite the same level of emotional angst about the subject that I did when I first got into this field, but I still find the question immensely compelling. That has been one of the major ways in which I see my studies as having impacted my personal religious beliefs—though I have not completely rejected LDS exclusivity claims, I am still working to make sense of them, and I have strong pluralist leanings.
Another way in which my academic work has caused me to seriously re-examine some aspects of my faith has to do with my understanding of and relationship with God. I grew up believing in a God of wrath, one who was constantly angry with me because I couldn’t stop sinning. Because I was raised LDS, this picture was closely intertwined with my LDS faith, which meant that I found it profoundly difficult to trust God in a Mormon context. Reading what those of other faiths had to say about God was therefore immensely liberating; their ways of talking were often unfamiliar enough that they didn’t trigger the emotional baggage that, for me, inevitably accompanied more familiar LDS discourse. It was in studying the work of the great Christian theologians that I encountered a rather different God than the one of my childhood, that I began to take seriously the possibility of a God who was patient and loving rather than tyrannical. In this way, working in theology has literally been a spiritual lifesaver for me, as I have found that encountering grace in the context of other traditions has enabled me to come back to my own and find it there as well.
I think that studying Christian theology has strengthened my belief both in God and in the power of the Christian message. Some days I do wonder, however, if it has made me less Mormon. There’s no question that my engagement with Protestant and Catholic thinkers has shaped my outlook on various theological issues; for example, in recent years I’ve become quite drawn to the doctrine of the Trinity, especially as it’s been articulated by contemporary theologians. On the other hand, there have also been moments when working in this field has made me acutely aware of my own Mormonness, such as when I realize I’m the one person in a seminar who’s not assuming ex nihilo creation.
I am still working out what it means to be a Latter-day Saint who studies traditional Christian theology. I have moments when I think that navigating between these worlds is simply making me crazy. Yet I remain deeply attached to both of them, and I believe–or at least hope–that despite the tensions which sometimes arise, the two contribute to each other, that my Mormon background brings something valuable to my theological work, and my academic studies enrich my LDS faith.
- 13 August 2007