I’ve been thinking recently about some of the wild theological controversies in Christian history, such as the inclusion of the word filioque in the Nicene Creed (having to do with whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father alone, or from the Father and the Son), which was one of the dividing lines between East and West; the Reformation debate over justification by faith alone; and the meaning of the Eucharist: transubstantiation, or just a symbol? (I recently read about how during a particular historical period in England when anti-Catholic sentiment carried the day, you could be outright imprisoned for elevating the Host.) And I’ve been thinking also about Mormon disputations with other Christians, focused on issues like the nature of God and salvation by grace, as well more internal Mormon controversies over matters such caffeinated drinks, Book of Mormon historicity, and of course all kinds of questions related to gender and sexual orientation.
Those who are deemed on the wrong side of these debates might get the label “heretic.” Bruce R. McConkie famously spoke of “seven deadly heresies”: the doctrine that God is progressing, the theory of evolution, the idea that temple marriage guarantees exaltation, the notion that you can get a “second chance” in the next life, the idea of progression between kingdoms, the infamous Adam-God doctrine, and the teaching that you have to be perfect to be saved. While I might actually believe in some of McConkie’s particular heresies, or at least be open to them, I’m thinking that there are nonetheless certain teachings that I’ve heard regularly which I think are deeply destructive—in my view, much more so than not having the “right” view of the Trinity/Godhead, or even of Book of Mormon historicity. So here’s my list of my own “seven deadly heresies”: Read More
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. Read More
As someone who’s been raising questions about LDS teachings and practices pretty much since my Primary days, I find that one of the most infuriating responses to people’s concerns is something along the lines of, “you just don’t understand,” whether the gospel generally or the specific principle being discussed. Because if you did understand, it seems to be assumed, you would cheerfully accept it, no more questions needed thank you very much. In years of feminist discussions, I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been told that women who are discontent “just don’t understand” the true, eternal nature of patriarchy; or the meaning of divine gender roles; or the many opportunities the church gives to women. When people try to clear up complicated issues by producing a slew of GA quotes that purportedly explain everything, I find myself at a real loss as to how to best respond. Read More
Holy Week kicks off! I’ve been excited for this ever since I found myself not just doing drive-by visits to the Episcopal church, but attending regularly. I’ve dipped in and out of different Holy Week events in the past, but I’ve never gone to all of them. This is actually my first time attending a Palm Sunday service.
We meet in the courtyard outside the chapel, and they distribute palms as we enter. We hold them up as they read the opening liturgy outside. They have a choir with handbells, and the music is just gorgeous. We slowly process into the building. Most of the service is taken up with a reading of the Passion narrative. They’ve assigned different people in the congregation to voice the different characters, which really brings it to life. (I’m amused to note that one of the rectors is playing both Judas and Pilate.) Since that’s the focus, there isn’t a sermon, although they do have Communion. (I’m coming to realize that Episcopalians pretty much do the Eucharist whenever possible.) They don’t read the Resurrection part of the text, of course, since it’s not Easter yet, so the service ends on a rather serious note. The congregation leaves in silence; unlike regular Sundays, the rectors don’t stand near the doors afterward and shake hands with people. But I leave on a real high nonetheless, excited for the coming week. Read More
One of the movies produced by the church that I actually rather enjoy is Nora’s Christmas Gift, partly because even though it has its cheesy moments, I like Nora, who is funny and real. But I also appreciate its message, which is one that resonates with me. Nora has to cope with life circumstances that I think most of us would find quite challenging, as age and declining health put her in a position where she finds herself more dependent on others. She has to cope with the unsettling shift from being the person who organized things and offered help to others to being the person in need of help. She quite understandably resents the situation and resists the help. But at the end of the movie, it occurs to her that learning to accept what others offer her—and ultimately what God offers her—is what Christmas is ultimately about: “let earth receive her King,” she says, with a dawning recognition that is it up to her to allow grace to affect her life. Read More
In his writings, the great reformer Martin Luther, who turned the theological world of the sixteenth century upside down, returned again and again to a very basic problem: how do you believe in the atonement, or grace, or the saving work of Christ, on a personal level? How do you really take in that those things apply to not just humanity in general, and more to the point, not to some category of “good people,” but to a sinner like yourself? “I have often experienced,” he wrote, “and still do every day, how difficult it is to believe, especially amid struggles of conscience, that Christ was given, not for the holy, righteous, and deserving, or for those who were His friends, but for the godless, sinful, and undeserving, for those who were His enemies, who deserved the wrath of God and eternal death.” Luther noted that when he found himself consumed by the forces of sin, it was nearly impossible to turn to Christ for rescue and forgiveness. He attributed this at least partly to the work of the devil, whose voice constantly whispered in his ear, reminded him of his unworthiness, and informed him that Christ would surely damn him. He described his experience of being frightened of Christ: “even at the mention of the name of Christ,” he recounted, “I would be terrified and grow pale, because I was persuaded that He was a judge.” Luther also observed the inexorable and unforgiving logic of the conscience: “You have sinned; therefore God is angry with you. If He is angry, He will kill you and damn you eternally.” He went on to even suggest that as a result, “many who cannot endure the wrath and judgment of God commit suicide by hanging or drowning.”
The only way to quiet these condemning voices is, of course, to throw yourself utterly on the mercy of the Savior. But Luther was well aware that this is much easier said than done. To turn to Christ, to look for grace, while being assailed by the forces of judgment and condemnation, he observed, was enormously challenging: “to do this in the midst of struggle is the hardest thing there is. I am speaking from experience, for I am acquainted with the devil’s craftiness . . .”
Selections from Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross (Basic Books, 2000).
“Christians call them the Triduum Sacrum, the three most sacred days of all time when time is truly told. The fist, Maundy Thursday, is so called because that night, the night before he was betrayed, Jesus gave the command, the mandatum, that we should love one another . . . The second day is the Friday we so oddly call ‘good.’ And the third day, the great Vigil of Resurrection Conquest. Do not rush to the conquest. Stay a while with this day. Let your heart be broken by the unspeakably bad of this Friday we call good . . . let your present moment stay with this day. Stay a while in the eclipse of the light, stay a while with the conquered One. There is time enough for Easter.” (1-2)
“Good Friday brings us to our senses. Our senses come to us as we sense that in this life and in this death is our life and our death. The truth about the crucified Lord is the truth about ourselves . . . The beginning of wisdom is to come to our senses and know that fearful truth about ourselves, that we have wandered and wasted our days in a distant country far from home.” (4) Read More
Many, many years ago, after an extended argument on a ZD thread in which people complained about the contentious turn that a particular discussion had taken, a commenter opined that this was nothing, and we should visit a particular male-dominated blog known for endless debate to see what “real robust challenge” looked like. I was annoyed, of course, by the subtext that the (often female) participants at ZD couldn’t handle “real” debate. But the question I really wanted to ask (but didn’t, because the conversation was going nowhere fast), was something like this: what exactly constitutes “real robust challenge?” Which of the following is more challenging, I wondered at the time: to not back down in the face of vehement intellectual disagreement and participate at length in the back-and-forth of an endless comment thread in which no one changes their mind a whit—or to make an effort to actually listen to and understand what someone is saying, even and especially if it’s not an easy thing for you to hear and perhaps makes you a bit uncomfortable? Which of those involves more risk? Which of these requires more strength? I will certainly concede that it takes a certain amount of confidence and skill to hold one’s own in an intense debate, and I think those are worthwhile attributes. But I wouldn’t mistake them for strength. I think we’re all familiar with blog participants who never ever back down, never walk away, and always have to have the last word. They can be a nightmare if you’re trying to engage in any kind of comment management or moderation, because such people will cheerfully hijack a thread with their very strong opinions about basically everything and drive it as fast as possible toward the nearest cliff. This actually hasn’t happened in a long time, especially as our blog has slowed down over the years, but in the old days when I would load ZD and see that over half of the recent comments were from the same person (and that person was not one of the ZD permabloggers), my heart would just sink, because there are certain participants who will never just let a discussion go. I have to wonder whether they would see doing so as a sign of weakness. Read More
I’m somewhat wary of secrets. Yes, I absolutely think there is a time and a place for keeping confidences, and I’m very much a supporter of private information staying generally private (like not having your entire web history auctioned off by your internet service provider to the highest bidder. But I digress). I’m not entirely on board with the trend in our contemporary culture to leak anything that can be leaked; given my history of willingness to criticize the church, you might be surprised to learn that I actually have some serious reservations about the recent MormonLeaks phenomenon.
Still, secrets are tricky beasts. Sometimes they’re necessary, no doubt about it. But I don’t like how they can place excessive burdens on people who get stuck with more knowledge than they can handle on their own, but who can’t ask for support because the knowledge is secret. I don’t like how they can create dividing lines between people, separating out those “in the know” as a privileged group. I don’t like how they can create a toxic atmosphere in communities (think, polygamy under Joseph Smith), or in families (such as when a parent selects one child and share their secrets with them but not with anyone else, and the dynamics get weird fast). Read More
The first time I ever went to see a therapist, I was 18 years old and a freshling at BYU. I’d finally gotten up the nerve to admit to my bishop that I was suicidally depressed, and he referred me to the university counseling center. I’d never been in therapy before, and I didn’t know what to expect. Unfortunately, it turned out to be kind of a disaster from the very beginning. The person who did the intake asked me about my suicide plans. When I hesitantly told him what I was thinking of doing, he said dismissively, “oh that would never work.” I was seriously burned by that brief interaction; years and years later, therapists would plead with me to share the specific details of my suicidal thinking and I would remain reticent, not wanting to re-live the shame of being told that my plans (and by extension, me) were not worth taking seriously. Read More
In 1960, a thinker by the name of Valerie Saiving wrote an influential article which is often considered the beginning of modern feminist theology, critiquing traditional models of sin which were centered around pride. Since such perspectives considered pride or excessive self-assertion to be the most basic sin, they understood the process of overcoming sin as necessarily involving a move toward greater selflessness. Love was defined in such approaches as being “completely self-giving, taking no thought for its own interests but seeking only the good of the other.” Saiving raised the objection that these models ignored some basic differences in the self-development of women and men, and arose from an essentially masculine perspective. The crucial point that these formulations overlooked, she argued, is that there is danger in the other direction as well, as it turns out that too much selflessness, far from producing someone in an idealized and virtuous state, leads to the development of a kind of “chameleon-like creature who responds to others but has no personal identity of his [or her] own.” Saiving saw this as a temptation to which women are particularly vulnerable. Read More
Like most kids born into the church, I was baptized at the age of eight. I turned 42 earlier this year. (Tangential sign that you are getting at least middle-aged: I actually had to stop and check the year and subtract to verify my current age. But yes, it’s 42.) That means I have a solid 34 years of membership in the LDS church. I was by no means consistently active for all those years. My first foray out of Mormonism happened about thirty seconds after I finished my last class at BYU, and was no longer required to have an ecclesiastical endorsement. That time around, I left for a good year and a half. But looking back, “left” is a very strong word for what I did. I mean, I quit going to church every week (though I’d still drop by for special occasions). But I still did stuff like praying and reading my scriptures, and even (such are the contradictions of life) attending an Institute class for a while. And given that I was living in Provo, with five Mormon roommates, I was still pretty immersed in the whole thing. In a stroke of good fortune, I got to take a night class on Mormon literature from Eugene England, who had found refuge at UVU at that point, and I loved it. It was an environment where there was room for real questions; I found there a constructive and supportive space to begin the process of seriously wrestling with my Mormon heritage and what it meant to me. Given my continuing attachment to the LDS tradition, I don’t think anyone was terribly surprised when I eventually decided to come back to church. Read More
My favorite Richard Dutcher movie, one perhaps lesser known than God’s Army or States of Grace, is a thought-provoking film titled Brigham City. It’s a highly suspenseful murder mystery set in a small Mormon community, and it deals head-on with some hard religious questions. The final scene is deeply moving. I won’t spoil it by giving too many details, but I will say that a crucial element of that scene is the question of what it means to be worthy to take the sacrament.
About eight years ago, when I was still a PhD student, I got to design and teach a Master’s-level class on Mormonism at my school. One week, I showed them Brigham City. The group of mostly Protestant students quite liked the movie, but they said something that has really stayed with me. They said that their take on that scene was different than mine had been, because they came from traditions in which there isn’t a worthiness requirement to take communion (or the sacrament, in Mormon lingo); in fact, one of them said that when you feel unworthy, that’s actually the time when you need it the most. I’ve thought a lot about that over the years. Read More
The Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel is often quoted as having said, “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.” I’m not that old yet, I wouldn’t say, but I’m also realizing these days that I’m not exactly young, either. And I find that I’m with Heschel in experiencing this shift in perspective as my age has increased. Read More
I posted this on Facebook the other day, with reference to my recent exploration of the Episcopal tradition, and I thought I’d share it here as well.
I’ve been wanting to express appreciation to my believing Mormon friends in particular who’ve been so supportive of my recent forays into other religious possibilities. It means a lot to me that no one has lectured, or asked me if I just have Word of Wisdom issues, or played the “you’re falling into apostasy” card, and that so many of you even seem excited and happy for me. Because I am in fact excited and happy. This has all been spiritually nourishing and powerful, and because I am still in many ways very Mormon, I have to think that it unquestionably passes the Moroni 7:41 test (“every thing which inviteth to do good, and to persuade to believe in Christ, is sent forth by the power and gift of Christ; wherefore ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of God.”) Read More
I recently emerged from a very long depression. While I am quite enjoying this rare life interlude of an existence not characterized by overwhelming apathy and despair, and am wanting to just savor the radical sense of being remarkably and unexpectedly enthusiastic about this whole being alive thing, my therapist keeps pushing me to think about how I can cope better when the depression returns. This isn’t a fun question to tackle, of course, because in my current state I’d prefer to believe that the depression won’t ever return. I do realize that this is completely wrongheaded. My particular manifestation of bipolar disorder is constituted by something like eighty percent down, fifteen percent in between, and a mere five percent up. (To really look at that, which I don’t often do, makes me feel both profound grief about how much of my life I’ve lost to depression, and intense rage about the unfairness of it all. Which is probably why I don’t like to think about it too hard.) But I do know in my head, at least, that the chances of the depression being permanently gone are close to zero, and I’ve thus been reluctantly willing to do the kind of strategic thinking that my therapist is asking me to do.
Several months ago I decided, for the umpteenth time in my life, that I needed a break from church. All the usual factors were at play, from frustration with the expectations surrounding gender and marriage to frustration with the culture of obedience and family-worship. The immediate catalyst for my leaving was not unrelated to these things. My older sister moved into the ward, and we started going to church together. This should have been fun, and of course I was happy she was there. But watching the sharp differences in the ways we were treated by other members of the ward just brought home to me that no, I was not imagining my marginalization in the community. People who barely registered my existence went out of their way to talk to and include her. People would literally talk over me, if I was sitting next to her, to engage her in conversation, without appearing to notice I was even there. I may as well have been a piece of furniture. She was asked to speak in sacrament meeting soon after moving in, and had a calling shortly thereafter—very different from my experience moving into the ward nearly a year earlier. Read More
In conversations about whether God really commanded such-and-such a thing, I’ve often heard the argument that “God wouldn’t do that.” God wouldn’t tell Abraham to kill his son, tell Joseph Smith to marry underage girls, tell contemporary prophets to enact a policy against the children of gay parents. Such things go against the character of God, so we can be confident that there was no divine involvement in these cases—just human error at work. The response from defenders of these things is often that God is far beyond our comprehension, that his thoughts are not our thoughts, and we are in no position to evaluate what he might or might not do. Read More
As a follow-up to my last post on chronic suicidality, I thought I’d mention some of the things that have kept me going over the years.
I’m like Hermione—when life throws you lemons, go to the library. Except that it’s hard to find books that have anything helpful to say. I’ve read my share and more of self-help books, and they’re almost all completely stupid—they don’t really speak to the experience of utter despair. There are some books on depression that I’ve found to be worth reading, though they can be hard to find. I prefer memoirs, accounts of people who’ve actually experienced it. But what’s helped me the most, honestly, is poetry. Mary Oliver in particular has a way of re-connecting me with what matters in life, of making me see things differently, without being cheesy or sentimental. For example, “The Journey”:
It was junior high when I first started thinking about how I’d really prefer not to be alive. I don’t think I got to the point of actually thinking about how I could bring that about—it was just a desperate unhappiness. But by high school I was starting to think more actively in that direction. I read all the books I could find about suicide, looking for information about methods, but also, I think, hoping to find something that would somehow help, even if I couldn’t articulate what that help would look like. If nothing else, learning more about it made me feel less alone with my demons. Read More