Apr 06

Spiritual Nardoo

A few months ago I went to a Unitarian Universalist church for a singalong Messiah performance. As I pulled into the parking lot of the church, I found myself overwhelmed by a feeling I couldn’t identify or articulate; I was suddenly shivering and in tears, feeling buoyant and light. Nothing dramatic happened that evening—I sang along with the Messiah, frequently failing to reach the highest soprano notes—but as I dissect my feelings later, wondering what had happened in the parking lot, it came to me: I was happily anticipating entering a church. I was about to do something religious, and all I felt was pure uncomplicated excitement.

That evening at the UU church made me realize that I brace myself each Sunday, and I have been for years. I rarely, if ever, feel the Spirit at church, but I often drive away crying, grieving dogmatism or sexism or boredom or disconnection or my own simple inability to fight my anger or cynicism, and at this point I’ve trained myself to expect this. Sunday is a day I am vulnerable to grief and fear and pain, with little expected joy in return, so Sunday is a day I put up walls. On Sundays I am not the person I hope to be.

Continue reading

Apr 03

Meaningful Service

A few weeks ago I was sitting at home while the kids were at school and feeling kind of depressed. Part of the reason was the inability to go anywhere or do much, but it was hitting me particularly hard that day (as opposed to the previous few weeks, although not much had changed), and I thought maybe there was something in particular I was missing. I couldn’t figure out what, though.

Having been raised as a good Mormon girl, I decided to start trying to figure out the answer using some of those standard Sunday School responses. Not because I think they’re a cure-all, but because they were mostly things I could do, I figured it wouldn’t hurt, and I had to start somewhere. So I started with prayer, and then moved on to scripture study. Neither were bad, but neither did anything to get me out of my funk, either. After reading about a chapter in my scriptures I thought that maybe reading some of my favorite GC talks would be more helpful. I started perusing some of President Uchtdorf’s talks (because he’s my favorite), and a couple of talks in something he said (no, I don’t remember what, or which talk) made me realize what I’d been missing. Service. Continue reading

Mar 17

Pitting Believers Against Unbelievers

The March 2015 Ensign includes a BYU-I devotional from Elder Dallin H. Oaks titled, “Stand as Witnesses of God,” which divides the world into believers and unbelievers. Oaks pulls no punches in critiquing the latter, using the term “anti-Christ” to describe atheists, and asserting that the Great and Abominable Church is “any philosophy or organization that opposes belief in God.” I find this framework to be troubling, and this characterization of atheists to be unfair.

Oaks isn’t sure that atheists really have moral standards. He is worried that “today many deny or doubt the existence of God and insist that all rules of behavior are man-made and can be accepted or rejected at will.” But this doesn’t necessarily follow. You can believe that rules are (human)-made without seeing them as something to be cavalierly rejected or accepted. You can still take ethics seriously. Oaks acknowledges that atheists are not necessarily moral relativists but raises the concern that “absolute standards not based on belief in God are difficult to explain.” The moral values of atheists are suspect, in other words, because he fails to find any persuasive reason for them. But unbelievers could make a similar move, critiquing believers by making the case that their moral principles are based on something imaginary and are therefore not to be trusted. I think we would all do well to acknowledge the ability of people to make genuine moral commitments regardless of their status as believers or unbelievers.

Continue reading

Mar 04

Two Thoughts From an Ordained Woman

I play the piano for a small Methodist congregation on Sunday mornings. They meet in one of the oldest Methodist churches in the South, a small, lovely brick building in a sleepy old town. It is not large enough to house a pipe organ. The pastor, who interviewed, auditioned, and ultimately hired me, is a young, 40-something woman, recently ordained. She and her husband – he sits in the pews with their three children every Sunday – are fugitives from a much stricter Baptist tradition.

I took the job for purely practical reasons; I needed a form of income that was not too time consuming but would enable me to help support my family while writing my dissertation. Yet, increasingly as time passes, I find myself surprised at my weekly reactions – emotional, intellectual, and spiritual – to the experience of having a woman preside. Her sermons bring up ideas that refuse to leave my mind, and everywhere in her speech are inclusive metaphors of female experience. Although, of course, some of the basic teachings and traditions of Methodism are distinct from Mormonism – the examples below will make that obvious – the parallels are striking enough that, while listening to her, I feel I am beginning to develop a vision of what real female leadership from ordained women would look like in an LDS setting. Here are two examples from sermons that have remained with me: Continue reading

Jan 31

Church Discourse on Homosexuality

In April 1971, President Spencer W. Kimball quoted some of the shocking proposals he had recently encountered. One unnamed church, he discovered, had “approved recommendation that homosexuality between consenting adults should no longer be a criminal offense. …” These are ugly voices, he warned.1

In a news conference in January 2015, the LDS church announced that it was “publicly favoring laws and ordinances that protect LGBT people from discrimination in housing and employment.”2

It’s been an interesting few decades. Continue reading

  1. Spencer W. Kimball, Conference, April 1971 []
  2. Neil Marriott, News Conference,  Jan 27, 2015 []
Jan 21

Poll: What Gets Most Emphasized by the Church?

In your experience, what is most emphasized by the church? (select up to three)
What do you personally see as the most important? (select up to three)
Jan 19

Discernment

As a kid in primary, I was in awe of the bishop. He was the trusted authority figure, the one who knew how things should go. The awe faded somewhat as I became a teenager, but I still remained firmly convinced of his inspiration. If he felt that we needed a talk on morality (the code word for chastity), for example, it was because that was what God wanted. Full stop. To some degree, I saw church leaders as infallible.

Continue reading

Jan 15

Local Leaders, Apostasy, and Ecclesiastical Discipline

The current situation with April Young Bennett, who had to choose between renewing her temple recommend and leaving up her posts on female ordination, brings up a troubling aspect of church governance: the extent to which local leaders can define apostasy. As anyone in the church can tell you, bishops and stake presidents can vary widely on a number of issues, and life in one stake can be quite different from life in another. I’m not saying that this is necessarily in and of itself a bad thing. But I do think it causes problems when it comes to particular issues, such as the way in which cases of apostasy are handled. Continue reading

Jan 13

Thinking About the Nicene Creed

This is a paper I wrote when I was just beginning my theological studies, titled “A Few Thoughts for Mormons on Approaching the Nicene Creed.” It was for a class on the Mystery of God. I thought it would be a fun follow-up to my most recent post. I’d probably come up at the subject a bit differently now, but it’s interesting to see how I was thinking about it when I was first grappling with the notion of the Trinity.

I do not know how many Mormons are familiar with the Nicene Creed, but those who are, I suspect, are likely to be more than a little wary of it. From an LDS point of view, it is perhaps easy to dismiss it as coming from an apostate Christianity, as reflecting too much theological formulating instead of plain and simple gospel truths. It is clearly outside the bounds of our tradition, reflecting a theology alien to us, and I am certainly not out to dispute that fact. Yet I wonder if we can nonetheless learn to better understand what it means to those who do accept it as basic doctrine, if we can engage the challenge of not merely viewing it as something faintly ridiculous but of attempting to appreciate the meaning it has for traditional Christianity. Continue reading

Jan 08

The LDS Godhead and the Traditional Christian Trinity: Which is More Confusing?

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. Continue reading

Dec 24

Good Tidings of Great Joy

A sacrament meeting talk I gave this year

“Fear not,” says the angel to the shepherds, in the familiar words of Christmas Eve: “for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”1 Put another way, grace has broken into the world.

“Fear not,” begins the angelic message. Rather, we are called to have faith—to be open to the word of God. “In the face of [Christmas],” writes the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, “we bravely open our hearts so that it may also happen to us and through us.”2 This offer of grace in some sense constitutes us as human beings—to be human is to be confronted by the sometimes disconcerting and disorienting love of God. We can run from this, or we can take the risk of faith. In refusing to close ourselves off from love and from life, we emulate a passible God, who is likewise open to us, and we emulate Christ, who came to experience life fully. And the message of Christmas is that ultimately, we have nothing to fear: God’s goodness and love can be trusted. Continue reading

  1. Luke 2:10-11 []
  2. “Christmas: Ever Since I Became Your Brother” in Karl Rahner, The Great Church Year -The Best of Karl Rahner’s Homilies, Sermons, and Meditations (New York: Crossroad, 1993) []
Dec 11

Comparative Polygamy

I was sitting in the lobby of a hotel in Cairo when a man came up to me. He commented on what I was wearing, suggesting that I wear red more often.

I was used to this. Egyptian culture, unlike the culture that I grew up in, encourages men to have opinions about things like the colors that women wear. Men will accompany their wives to makeup counters, and even go alone to department stores to purchase high-end cosmetics and perfume for their wives, mothers, and sisters.

We fell into conversation. His English was excellent. As we spoke, he mentioned Islam and asked if I was married. I was used to this, too. Muslim men in Cairo – even married Muslim men – would often approach single women and flirt with or proposition them. A common line was “I should take you as my second wife.” It was always a bit jarring to me, as an American woman, to have men approach me in an obviously lusty, flirtatious way when they were already married. But this particular man in the lobby had not yet married. He was planning on working a few more years before he did so. Continue reading

Dec 04

On Faith Transitions and Rejecting the Binary

Ever since the new essays dealing with more complex bits of Mormon history appeared on lds.org, almost daily I encounter facebook statuses and posts in private groups of people reeling, overwhelmed and disoriented, unsure of what to do. These are good people, people who have devoted their lives and their talents and their faith to the Church, many of them deeply orthodox. Their statuses are, for me, an unsettling echo of the statuses of many of my more liberal and progressive Mormon friends last summer when Kate Kelly and John Dehlin were facing Church discipline. It seems it’s been a hard year for Mormons of most stripes.

For a while I didn’t look too closely at the statuses. They reminded me of the numbness and shock I felt, over a decade ago before social media existed, when I pored over books in the Harold B. Lee library shortly after taking out my endowments as a younger, pre-mission-age single woman at BYU. I didn’t know then where to turn, whom to talk to. When I did bring up the information I found in those books to close friends and family – secret “spiritual wivery” and polyandry, blood atonement, racist pronouncements said over the pulpit in the name of the Lord – even the least dogmatic immediately told me not to worry about it or not to read it. My protestations that I wasn’t reading anti-Mormon materials but historical documents and books written by LDS scholars fell on deaf ears, and, even more unnerved, I realized that this was not something I could talk about with any of my LDS friends. It was many, many years before I did. My faith transition was achingly alone.

And so, when John Dehlin issues a request, as he frequently does, for people to offer their advice and stories for how they handle their own faith transitions, I find myself wondering what advice I or any one of us can give. Continue reading

Dec 03

More On Modesty

By all appearances, I was a modesty success story as a teenager. For whatever reason, I was naturally inclined to cover up, squeamish even about changing in front of friends, and by 16 I was, without much prodding, essentially dressing for BYU and, later, garments. I owned no skirts above the knee, nothing too tight, nothing sleeveless, and, through the throes of the 90s midriff craze I layered colorful tank tops under my shirts to ensure no one saw a flash of my stomach.

Continue reading

Nov 24

Toward a Relational Understanding of Salvation

In his popular book Believing Christ, Stephen Robinson relates a parable which at least in my experience has become quite influential in LDS discussions of grace. In this story, Robinson’s young daughter asks if she can have a bicycle. Robinson replies, save your pennies until you have enough. Some time later, he discovers that his daughter has diligently followed his instructions, and has managed to save all of sixty-one cents. They go to look at bicycles, but his daughter is devastated to realize just how much more the bicycle costs than she is able to contribute. Robinson, however, tells her that if she gives all that she has, he will pay the rest, and he purchases the bicycle.

The parallels here are fairly obvious. We cannot achieve salvation on our own—but we are still required to contribute however much we can, no matter small it may be. In this approach, 2 Nephi 25:23—“it is by grace that we are saved after all we can do”—describes a situation in which we do what we can, we contribute what we have, and grace makes up the (vast) difference.

I think this parable has good to offer, particularly in its stress that we are not expected to do more than we can, and its focus on Christ’s ability to save us. In this, it serves as an important corrective to an over-emphasis on works. However, I have some serious reservations about it. Continue reading

Oct 19

The Problem of Evil, Church Edition

The classic formulation is of the problem of evil is that (1) God is all-powerful, (2) God is good, and (3) evil exists. How is it possible that (3) is the case if both (1) and (2) are true? Mormons, I think, tend to question (1), to posit a God who is not all-powerful, and to emphasize that humans have genuine agency and God rarely appears to override it. (Some also seem to move in the direction of questioning (3), saying things like “everything happens for a reason” or framing everything, including the negatives of life, as engineered by God, and thus essentially making evil illusory. I think this is hugely problematic, but that’s a tangent.)

I’m generally sympathetic to the move to make divine omnipotence limited (whether inherently, or because God chooses to make space for agency.) But here I want to consider the question in a context I find particularly challenging: the church. How do we make sense of it that God seems to be allowing all kinds of problems in the church? Just to clarify, I’m not talking about the kind of problems that arise in any human community, as flawed people with different temperaments and opinions do their best to work together. I’m talking about problems in the structure, in teachings and practices, in the scriptures and prophetic statements—the things that, if you take the church at its word, God is directly engineering. Continue reading

Oct 17

Feminism, Pain, and the Atonement

I’ve recently come across the troubling accusation that LDS feminists deny the atonement, expressed both in this post, and in comments in various places. A few thoughts in response.

First of all, I note that this discussion primarily focuses on negative encounters with individuals. LDS feminists are upset, it is so often assumed, because they’ve had negative experiences with priesthood holders. Obviously, this happens. But two points about this:

1) There are so, so many ways you can encounter painful aspects of the church—in scriptures where females barely appear, in a prohibition on prayer to Heavenly Mother, in temple covenants which differ by gender, in the historical and possibly eternal practice of polygamy, in the denial of priesthood to women, in the depressing fact that women are an “auxiliary” and not ecclesiastically necessary. The problems are much deeper than simply having a bad experience with one’s bishop.

2) Negative encounters with priesthood leaders always take place within a broader setting of structural inequality. They wouldn’t be nearly so fraught if this weren’t the case.
Continue reading

Oct 07

Tuesday’s Twice-Baked ZD: Please, Don’t Love Me

In today’s edition of that good ol’ Bloggernacle comfort food, Twice-Baked ZD, Lynnette makes the startling assertion that she doesn’t want to be loved.

I’ve had various encounters throughout my life with anti-Mormons who were out to save me from this terrible cult in which I am a member. Needless to say, this is an attitude I find extremely off-putting—in fact, as an unorthodox Mormon who engages in plenty of my own critiques of the Church, there are fewer things that rekindle my loyalty and connection to it more than encountering people on a mission to rescue Mormons from their delusions. But this is the thing that really gets to me. That if you ask these people why they’re behaving this way, often they say that it’s out of love. That they love Mormons. All I can say is, please oh please save me from this version of love. Continue reading