My Episcopal Crush, and Converting to Pluralism

The metaphor of a “crush” to describe my newfound love for the Episcopal tradition is really quite apt. I’m smitten. I’m infatuated. I’m giddy and excited, and I even find myself feeling almost guilty at times for being so happy about this when so many terrible things are happening right now in the country and in the world. But it’s spring! And the sun is shining, and the flowers are blooming! And I get to go to church! Oh, so much church. On Palm Sunday a friend asked which of the Holy Week services I was planning to attend, and I said oh, all of them, and she laughed. But I can’t get seem to get enough. (For one thing, I think I’m absolutely famished for good liturgy, in a way that I didn’t even realize.) And just being at church, just being in the building, makes me ridiculously happy. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this about Mormon church, not just because it’s beaten me down a lot over the years, but also because I suspect that it’s hard to have a period of falling in love with a tradition in which you’ve been immersed since you were born, and is never going to be new and exciting in the same way. Yep, this is a crush for sure.

And while it’s super fun to be in this place and I’m determined to enjoy it while it lasts, I’m well aware that it’s not sustainable. The glow is eventually going to fade. One day I’m going to go to church and the liturgy will just be kind of humdrum or even boring. Someone in the community is going to do something that offends me. As I become more acquainted with the congregation, I’m going to learn that like every congregation, it has difficult personalities and conflicts. I’m going to run into the politics that are part and parcel of every church. I’m going to have times when I don’t feel any connection to the divine from worshiping there, and I’m going to wonder whether it’s even worth it to show up. And on top of all of that, my own psychological state is going to shift. The mania is going to fade, and I’m going to be depressed again. And when all that happens, then I think I will find out if there is enough in my relationship to the Episcopal church to sustain things, to keep me coming back and participating. That’s partly the reason why, as giddy as I currently am, I haven’t even seriously thought about converting. I want to see where this goes first. I want to see if it has staying power.

So I don’t know how this will work out in the long run. The only way to find that out really is to keep moving forward and see. It could potentially crash and burn, or just fizzle out. It could end with a break-up, whether wrenching or amicable. Or it could be The One, and I could make the decision to commit to it. I don’t know yet. But regardless of what happens next, I feel like this experience has given me a life-altering gift: finding God, really encountering the divine in another tradition, has opened up a world of possibilities.

I’ve been wrestling with theological questions about the meaning of religious pluralism for a long, long time. I had a crisis early on in my studies of theology over the issue of proselytizing, and whether it was even ethical; a class on Jewish-Christian relations had hit home to me just how much damage had been done over the centuries by Christians intent on converting the world. I also struggled to make theological sense of what I was doing in my academic work; the idea that I was just learning about “apostate Christianity” didn’t begin to do justice to the depth of my experience with and appreciation for the Christian theologians whose works I devoured. I came back again and again to the question of how to develop a coherent LDS theology of pluralism. At a conference sponsored by the Foundation for Interreligious Diplomacy in 2010, I presented a paper on the subject in which I argued that the Mormon version of postmortality, with people being saved through vicarious ordinances, though often cited as The Answer to the problem of pluralism, doesn’t satisfactorily address the hard question of why, if this life has real significance, God has only bothered to make his true gospel available to only an infinitesimal number of all the people who’ve ever lived on the planet. The doctrine of premortality actually had more potential, I proposed, in that it gives us a framework for understanding this life as fundamentally being about experiential learning (as opposed to the acquisition of facts, or figuring out intellectually what constitutes “true doctrine”), and also about making choices in a situation of deep ambiguity—which in turn makes us rely on others and their perspectives to supplement our own, and also suggests that learning to live with and even coming to love others who are radically different (to charitably respond to pluralism, in other words) is maybe one of the major reasons why we are even here in the first place. I concluded, “Latter-day Saints have have strong theological reasons for taking the risk of serious engagement with other faiths. Interfaith dialogue is not just a good thing to do; it has salvific potential.”

But for all my academic grappling with these issues, I think emotionally I was still deeply bound to LDS exclusivist claims. The church made me crazy at times, oh so crazy, but one of the reasons I never felt like I could leave was because I genuinely bought into the idea that Mormonism had maybe not the only access to God, but nonetheless the best access. Our priesthood was more real, more efficacious, more powerful; everyone else’s devotional practices might have genuine value, but they were still in some sense inferior imitations. I never would have assented to this intellectually, but emotionally I was still there. I could believe that God was genuinely communicating with people in other traditions, but somehow I didn’t feel like it was really possible that God would respond to me if I didn’t use my Mormon mailing address. I’d even had occasional spiritual experiences at the services of other churches, but I never quite let it sink in what that might mean. And I feel like as a result, the LDS church kind of held me spiritually hostage—something that was reinforced by a regular drumbeat of talks suggesting that leaving would be futile, because where would you go? Mormonism had it all: the fullness of the gospel (not just the bits of truth that LDS leaders have acknowledged are present in other traditions), and the only authorized priesthood. Looking back, and I realize this isn’t an entirely fair comparison, but it reminds me a little of how abusive spouses will sometimes tell their partners that they [the partners] can’t leave, because no one else could ever love them. Even when the church was making me utterly miserable, I had no doubt about the authenticity of the experiences I’d had of God in an LDS context, and I had a deep, unexamined assumption that leaving would mean in some sense giving up my relationship with the divine. And that was too high a price to pay.

And then this whole crazy flirting with the Episcopal church happened. And it’s seriously shaken up my entire worldview, in a way that is both exciting and fun, and also unsettling and disorienting. Because it turns out that God is there, too. Like, really there. Just as in my experience of Mormonism, sometimes the sermons fall flat and the prayers seem empty and the blessings don’t quite “take” — and then once in a while, they just hit you, and facilitate an encounter with God that leaves you somewhat in awe, and hungry for more. (And can I just say in passing that having those encounters sometimes mediated by a priest who happens to be a woman? The coolest thing ever.) I’m not even sure what shifted, or how or when, because even when I’d genuinely appreciated the liturgy of other churches in the past and enjoyed visiting, it hadn’t been spiritually meaningful to me in the same way. But somewhere somehow that changed, and it started speaking to me on a deep level.

As I said above, I don’t know where I’m going to end up; I’m hesitant to make any long-term religious commitments while I’m 1) manic, and 2) in the thrall of a crush. So I’m just taking things as they come. But while I haven’t converted to the Episcopal tradition, I do think I’ve experienced a genuine conversion: a conversion to a much deeper belief in pluralism, a belief  that is experiential in addition to being intellectual. And that’s a game-changer. For one thing, I feel more liberated than I ever have to simply reject LDS teachings which strike me as deeply wrong and even destructive. And even if I someday decide to return to Mormonism—and I can’t for sure rule that out, because it’s still a big part of who I am—my hope is that it would be a genuine choice, made out of a real desire to be part of the tradition, rather than a fearful holding on to it because on some level I didn’t think I had other options. God, as so often seems to be the case, is so much bigger than I ever imagined. And I am reassured to think that wherever my religious explorations might take me in the future, my relationship with the divine can survive, and even thrive. I’m coming to believe more and more in a God whose awareness of and reaching out to the world isn’t limited by the religious boundaries constructed by humans, a God who can find me wherever I go, and meet me there.

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