Many of you are doubtless familiar with the object lesson in which you hold up a rope or a long string, and point to a tiny bit in the middle as representing this life, with eternity stretching in both directions, both before and after it. We did this more than once in church classes when I was a teenager, as a way of emphasizing the importance of having an eternal perspective. In Mormon cosmology, mortal life is just a speck of time, infinitesimal in comparison to the eternities. Read More
Like many people I know, I was quite dismayed by the House’s recent passage of the abominable American Health Care Act, which seems to most fundamentally be about giving the rich a giant tax cut with the horrific side effect of making access to health care far more difficult for poor Americans in particular. (Don’t miss Michael Austin’s thoughts on this at BCC.) This one hits close to home—I was one of those who was uninsurable prior to Obamacare, due to having had the audacity to get treated for depression. I still remember the rejection letter I got from a health insurance company telling me that if I could manage to be symptom-free for seven years, they would maybe reconsider. The delicate question of how I was supposed to achieve the enviable status of being symptom-free for seven years with no insurance to pay for treatment was of course not addressed. I remember asking around about what to do, and people telling me that I should have just lied on the application and not mentioned the mental health care I’d gotten, especially given that it was paid for out-of-pocket; no one will ever know, they said. But possibly more out of neurotic paranoia that I would get found out than commitment to honesty, that didn’t feel like a real option to me, so I made my way forward with no insurance. I was lucky in that I was young and physically healthy, and yet every time I thought something be wrong with me, I would be sick with anxiety that it would turn out to be something serious and I would have no way to pay for treatment. Read More
Many years ago, I wrote about my experience of depression: “I often feel a profound hunger for language, for something that will honestly speak to the realities of my experience. But it is not easy to find words that speak to this hunger. I sometimes go to bookstores or libraries and hunt with a sense that I am falling off a cliff and I need words, I desperately need them, and I can’t find them anywhere.” I often reflected on this passage in Amos:
Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord: And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and not find it.'”1
- Amos 8:11-12 [↩]
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
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
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
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.”1 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.”2 Saiving saw this as a temptation to which women are particularly vulnerable. 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
According to Nephi, many “plain and precious truths” were taken out of the Bible. When the question is posed in Gospel Doctrine as to what exactly these truths might be, people often bring up the nature of God. Other Christians have a completely confusing understanding of God, it is said, as opposed to our straightforward one. What is with this whole three-in-one Trinity, anyhow? This is perhaps the most common complaint I hear about mainstream Christianity—their understanding of God is far too complicated.
I agree that the Trinity is a difficult doctrine. However, I’m not persuaded that the LDS take on the Godhead is actually any clearer. Read More
When Beatrice and I were serving together as missionaries, we were lucky enough to be in a district that included the mission offices. The APs and office Elders were in our district, so more often than not we held district meetings in a cozy conference room in the main mission office building, giving us frequent occasion to see the Mission President and his wife.
Throughout our companionship, Beatrice mentioned to me that she had questions about the role of women as depicted in the temple endowment. We discussed it a few times in companionship study, and then – taking advantage of our proximity to the mission leaders – one day we decided to take the issue to the wife of the MP. To be clear, we didn’t openly dissect elements of the endowment that are considered private or sacred. We talked about the sorts of things that are commonly parsed on fMh, Exponent II, and here at ZD: the hearken covenant; women veiling their faces; the almost complete silence of Eve and lack of other female characters in the pre-mortal realm; and other, similar issues. Read More
At a conference earlier this year, I presented a brief (and admittedly self-serving) paper suggesting some of the reasons why Mormons need theology. I listed several areas where I saw a need for theological work, and I noted that one of the most pressing of these was our lack of queer theology. After my presentation, several people enthusiastically asked me exactly how one might go about doing queer theology, and I had to admit that I was only pointing to the need for it; I was still working out how one might actually do it. For this reason, and others, I was excited to see Taylor Petrey’s recent Dialogue article—a thoughtful approach to a topic about which most discussion produces more heat than light. I am still thinking this through, but I would like to play with some of the ideas that Taylor brings up. Read More
A couple of years ago, I wrote a Thanksgiving post about my ambivalence about gratitude, and why, while I see the value of it, I think it’s a problem to dictate it, or to use injunctions like “be grateful” as a weapon against those who dare to express unhappiness about anything. I’ve been thinking about the subject again this year, but perhaps from a somewhat less psychological and more theological angle. I’ve been wondering—why, religiously speaking, is gratitude important?
When it comes to religion, I have strong pluralist sympathies; one of the aspects of the LDS church I personally find the most challenging is the “only true church” claim. I’ve blogged before about why I think it’s a mistake for Mormons to assume that we have nothing to learn from other traditions, or to conceptualize them as–at best–less developed versions of ourselves. In my own life, I have found that serious engagement with the teachings and ideas of other traditions has tremendously enriched my faith.
Nonetheless, there are ways of talking about pluralism that I find problematic. Read More
A question which has been on my mind recently, as I have been contemplating some of the theological questions involved in LDS feminism, is that of methodology. In particular, what are the sources of authority which might be used in feminist approaches to the tradition? Too often, I think, LDS feminists—including myself—have a tendency to simply import norms and values from the varieties of feminism which are prominent in contemporary secular discourse, and then measure the Church against them. This inevitably leads to the criticism that feminists are advocating “worldly” values, and these are irrelevant in the realm of revealed religion. For example, popular terms like “rights” and “equality” may have deep resonance when invoked in the context of Western liberal democracy, but some question the usefulness of these terms in a Christian context. Read More
This post was inspired by the CK debate happening here.
I’ll confess that I find a certain amount of comfort in the idea that God is in some ways a different kind of being than we are. Humans, for all their beauty, are kind of messed up sometimes, and I love the idea that there is a being out there who is perfect and “good” and who doesn’t have the same kind of imperfections as the rest of us. I also love scriptures such as Moses 7:33–the moment when Enoch asks God why he weeps, He responds, “And unto thy brethren have I said, and also given commandment, that they should love one another, and that they should choose me, their Father; but behold, they are without affection, and they hate their own blood.” The idea that there is a perfectly loving and good being who weeps at the cruelty that we inflict on one another appeals to me. Read More
A question which often arises in theological discussion is that of whether we mere mortals are in any position to make sense of these kinds of topics in the first place. One common argument is that the things of God are incomprehensible to mortal understanding, and we shouldn’t expect to understand them with our finite brains. If particular religious teachings appear nonsensical or even morally problematic, then, this is merely due to the limits of human reason.
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. Read More
In honor of having made it through another year of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day celebrations (and/or firestorms), I’d like to consider some issues related to parenthood, and how we talk about it in the Church. Though I admittedly do have my qualms about some of the language related to gender, I have to say that the LDS emphasis on the importance of parenting is something I actually quite appreciate, and generally see as positive. At the same time, as a single adult member of the Church, I’m all too aware of how this emphasis can leave a large segment of the community feeling somewhat like second-class citizens. So I find myself coming back to the question, is there a way to talk about the importance of parenthood that doesn’t marginalize the non-parents? Or is that simply one of the costs of keeping the role of parent as central as we want it to be? I honestly don’t know the answer to that one. Read More