In a few minutes I’ll be leaving to travel to California, where I’ll be speaking this weekend at the conference of the Mormon Scholars in the Humanities. I’ll be speaking Friday morning on Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Saturday on Nibley + Terryl & Fiona Givens on atonement theory. Sunday evening at 7:00 pm, I’ll be speaking to the Bay Area Mormon Studies Council on the topic of “Disenchanted Mormonism: How (and Why) to Be Religious but not Spiritual.” The talk will be at the Berkeley Institute, located at 2368 LeConte Avenue. This event is open to the public — please... Read more »
I’m not susceptible to guilt. I’m sensitive to social pressure, for sure, and can be “guilted into” doing or saying things I don’t really mean. I feel terrible when I’ve failed to meet an obligation or hurt another person. But I don’t really feel that I’ve sinned — I don’t have the inner sense that God is unhappy with me, that I’m unworthy, or that I need divine forgiveness. I just want to repair my mistakes, or feel frustrated if I can’t. I sat in an Episcopal Easter vigil a few days ago, and the liturgy dwelled for a time on human sinfulness. I thought for a moment about my sins, and I actually couldn’t name anything specific at first. After a few minutes I lit on a relationship with one of my children that I have been been damaging with my actions, and I began to think of that as real sin, not just my being emotionally inadequate to the task of mothering. But that way of thinking — I’ve sinned, I’m guilty, I need God’s forgiveness and rescue — is not my first reflex. That’s just not the way my psyche works, for whatever reason: maybe my upbringing, or my brain structure, or my life experiences.
I’m not proud of this, but I’m not ashamed of it, either: it’s just how I am. I think it probably hinders my ability to empathize with others in some situations and veils a central part of human experience from me; it probably also makes me less scrupulous about private religious observances. Of course, maybe I’m a horrible sociopath and just don’t see it — I guess you’d have to ask my friends and family about that. On the other hand, my missing guilt receptors have probably saved me some needless anguish and kept me on a pretty even emotional keel that allows me to serve others and contribute in the community.
All this to say that I listened to Elder Uchtdorf’s Sunday morning talk, “The Gift of Grace,” with great interest and respect, but without the overwhelming emotional response that many people experienced. I felt happy for their sakes, happy that their burdens were lifted and their souls watered. But the talk didn’t really re-frame my own felt relationship to God in a deep way, because sin and forgiveness just aren’t the channels through which that connection flows. William James distinguished between “healthy-minded” and “sick” souls, without attaching moral judgment to either one: the healthy are those who feel fundamentally at home and right with the world, and the sick those who feel fundamentally broken and out of place. I’m a healthy-minded soul.* I would imagine that James’s “sick souls” are those who most fervently respond to Elder Uchtdorf’s talk.
While sin and guilt have scant purchase my soul, death stalks my imagination. I am terrified of death — my own death, the death of those I love, the death of the sun and the scattering of a cold universe. I’m afraid too of the death-seeking drives of human nature, our indenture to fleshly instinct and our lust for status, Lear’s “poor, bare, forked animal” and the Preacher’s lament that all is vanity and striving after wind. All flesh is grass. This fear should be assuaged by a robust sense of Christian grace — after all, in the resurrection Christ vanquished hell and death. But this witness has not yet been given to me, or I have not yet allowed it to penetrate my hard heart. I live in hope that it may someday, but for now the veil over my mind is lead.
Maybe my mostly sunny nature seems like a contradiction, then. But it doesn’t feel that way to me: I fear death as I do because life is so fine. I want a thousand miraculous April 7ths, when everything improbably blooms overnight and the air is sweet and velvet. I want to plant a thousand seeds, raise a thousand children, learn a thousand piano concertos. I want a thousand years of mud under my fingernails and fat earthworms slipping through invisible tunnels in the rotting leaves. I want to hike every dry canyon, shovel snow for days, nurse every baby. I want to read every book to my children under every shockingly spring-green tree, and together memorize the exact pattern of the leaves against the sky. I want to fly for miles with the wind in my hair and my son in my arms. The turning of the seasons, the passage of the holidays and the marking of that passage with my children fills me with belonging, at-homeness, connection to past and future and every leaf and stone. I feel that the world was given to me — no, that I was given to the world. I can only interpret this feeling as divine. As grace, in fact.
When Nibley writes about grace, he sets the scene in Eden. But it’s not the Fall he focuses on, it’s the Lord’s gift of creation, a new world in which Adam, male and female, is placed in every sense of that rich, earthy, growing, dying word. Place, for me, is grace. My deepest spiritual perceptions do not take the form of a cross; this probably makes me a poorer disciple of Jesus of Nazareth. They take the form of a tree. But there is grace there, too.
*With the exception of the months after each of my babies were born, when I suffered from terrible post-partum depression and anxiety. These experiences changed me, not least in bringing into focus the well-being that I am fortunate to experience as normal at other times.
I’m pleased to share a post written by my friend Christian Harrison. I’d like to write a few words about something that was said, during the Saturday morning session of General Conference.I grew up in Spokane, Washington. Living so close to the Canadian border, I frequently came across the random Canadian penny or dime. As a child, I learned that they were easily used to pay at the cashier but they were rejected outright by vending machines.You see, those Canadian coins weren’t counterfeit, they were just foreign. The cashiers knew the difference… but the machines did not. And what... Read more »
Chapter 9, “Zion as Project”, gets right down to business. Having previously and rather brilliantly tied up his various scriptural themes and contexts — Old Testament eschatology, early Christian history, Pauline hope, faith and love, the Book of Mormon’s revision of Pauline hope, early Restoration history — Spencer brings these all to bear on the earliest version of the consecration revelation that eventually became D&C 42. He focuses on what are now verses 29-37. (I link to the modern D&C for convenience, but of course the earliest version was different, and those differences are a major focus of the... Read more »
Chapter 8, “Zion in Prophecy,” marks an important transition in Joseph Spencer’s For Zion. Opening with a tour de force theological dissection of hope in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, followed by a thoughtful interlude on the Book of Mormon’s conceptual bridge between Paul’s early Christian hope and the Zion of the Restoration, the book turns in chapter 8 to what most of us came expecting: Spencer’s close reading of Joseph’s latter-day revelations on consecration and Zion. The analysis opens with an overview of the historical moment into which the revelation eventually known as D&C 42 arrived. Soon after... Read more »
I’m honored to participate in this roundtable on Joe Spencer’s book For Zion: A Mormon Theology of Hope. I’ll be tackling chapters 2 and 3 today; Adam treated chapter 1 here. Like many T&S readers, I presume, I come at this book as an amateur: I was trained in literature, not philosophy, and the densely analytical style of philosophy can be challenging — though always rewarding — for me to work through. These chapters are full of interesting ideas and new readings. Rather than react or respond to Joe’s theology here, I’m just going to do my best to summarize the... Read more »
I believe it was Joanna Brooks who first formulated the idea that “excommunication is a 19th-century solution to a 21st-century problem.” It bears the marks of her elegant, intelligent phrase-making. Since it was first uttered, this idea has fed a swelling criticism of the practice of excommunication, following from the high-profile disciplinary action against Kate Kelly and now John Dehlin. This particular criticism is separate from — though often prompted by — the specifics of the Dehlin and Kelly cases: it’s a denunciation of the practice in general, either for apostasy or for any transgression. To expel a dissident... Read more »
It was the jumpsuit that brought it all into focus, a jumpsuit much like one he had worn years before. But this jumpsuit was white. That one had been orange. Dressed in the white polyester garment, David was prepared for baptism into a new church. A fleeting glimpse of himself dressed in white seemed to capture the great changes in his life and outlook over the past months. White was his new orange. God’s voice began speaking in his heart. “You’ve been getting away with some things you’re not supposed to be doing, and it’s only by the grace... Read more »
Today we’re pleased to share a guest post from Benjamin Park. The post refers to his review essay “The Book of Mormon and Early America’s Political and Intellectual Traditions,” which is available to read at the Maxwell Institute site here, or as a Google document here. We have also published a follow-up comment from David Holland, whose book is one of the subjects of Park’s essay. We have closed the post to additional comments. We will now turn the time over to Brother Park. [This is a response to the number of posts and comments dealing with a review essay of mine, “The Book... Read more »
I love Primary. It’s my favorite place to serve in the Church, and if I had my way I’d serve there for the rest of my life. This month’s Sharing Time theme is “‘The Family: A Proclamation to the World’ Came from God to Help My Family.” Looking through the October lesson plans in the 2014 outline, week 2 caught my eye: “Marriage between a man and a woman is essential to God’s plan.” The topic — the importance of marriage — is one that matters a lot to me. I thought that the suggested lesson plan could do... Read more »
I recently accepted a new calling in my ward. I’m now the compassionate service leader in the Relief Society. It’s been a good change from my previous calling as gospel doctrine teacher; I’m still relatively new in the ward, and this calling allows me to meet and know the people I worship with more intimately. There is a self-interested angle to this: every so often I cause a little trouble in my wards, or contemplate doing so, and I’ve found that when I know and love individual people I can get away with saying more. Plus, you know, once... Read more »
What can we gather from last week’s decision from Salt Lake? The content of the Priesthood session will be made accessible in real time to anybody who wants to view it online, but the live venue will be available to men only — even, presumably, non-Priesthood-holding or -worthy men. Priesthood session, in its primary form, will remain a male-only social space. It appears that the purpose of the formerly-restricted Priesthood session was not chiefly to withhold information from women, although that was the effect, but rather to preserve a single-sex social and spiritual space. Does this suggest anything about... Read more »
School’s back in session. Several weeks of early mornings have burned through the summer sleep reservoir. Inevitably, the debate over school start times sputters to life, ignited this year by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who tweeted “Common sense to improve student achievement that too few have implemented: let teens sleep more, start school later.” Duncan’s statement references both the sleep science suggesting that teenagers’ circadian rhythms shift toward later wake and sleep times, and the small but growing initiative to delay high school bell schedules to better accommodate the students’ biological reality and, potentially, improve their academic performance.... Read more »
This is a talk I delivered in Sacrament Meeting this past Sunday, on the topic “Using General Conference addresses in our personal study.” At the center of Mormon self-understanding is the idea that God reveals himself in the present day, to prophets and to individuals.What, then, is the character of that continued revelation? We’ve been studying the D&C in Sunday school this year, so we have examples close at hand. I want to look at two passages, chosen for their differences. Listen for the contrast in tone; how would you describe the flavor? Here’s the first, from section... Read more »
A few disjointed thoughts, first on the pants event itself and then on the response. I have a lot of sympathy for the goals of the pants-protest group, as I understand them. I too would like to see a broadening of Mormon femininity; I would be very pleased to see symbolic changes in practice that would underscore the spiritual equality of the genders; I think the church will benefit from a more open and more compassionate acknowledgment of Mormon feminists’ concerns. To that extent, I say Brava, sisters! I think there were some errors in the conception and planning... Read more »
I was surprised and really happy to hear about the big missionary shake-up today. I learned about it first on Facebook, since I wasn’t able to watch Saturday morning’s session, and it was fun to monitor reactions there and around the bloggernacle throughout the day. I pretty much concur with most of the assessments reported in Peggy Fletcher Stack’s great piece in the Tribune: Joanna Brooks and Neylan McBaine both had important comments about the implications of the change for increased gender equality in church governance. I would add one more thought on potential structural implications: a drastically increased... Read more »
Criticisms of the Book of Mormon generally fall into one of two categories: objections to its historical claims on the one hand, and on the other critiques of its literary style. The two prongs are often combined in a single attack, for instance in the suggestion that the awkward style of the book reflects the naïve voice of an unlettered youngster. For their part, the book’s defenders also tend to elide the two categories, arguing that passages of inelegant prose are better understood as latent Hebraisms laboring under English syntax. Most of the time, of course, devout readers of... Read more »
The topic of sex and the Mormon single is a perennial favorite in the bloggernacle, and recently it has drawn national attention as well. No treatment of the topic would be complete without a look at the Duck Beach phenomenon, an informal annual gathering of east coast LDS singles in North Carolina that is equal parts Jersey Shore and Temple Square. LDS filmmaker Stephen Frandsen (my cousin) and his production company Big Iron Productions have trained a thoughtful lens on this singular affair, and are currently in the process of financing and producing a documentary exploring its relevance. We’re... Read more »
A guest post from our friend and colleague emeritus, Russell Arben Fox. The title of this post isn’t a snark; it’s an open question, about which I am genuinely curious. (I’m also giving a presentation on this topic next week at the Midwest Sunstone/Restoration Studies conference, so my ulterior motive is a fishing expedition for anecdotes from the Collected Saints of the Bloggernacle.) Read more »
It’s my pleasure to announce that Adam Miller will join T&S as a guest blogger. Adam S. Miller is a professor of philosophy at Collin College in McKinney, Texas. He is the author of Badiou, Marion, and St Paul: Immanent Grace (Continuum, 2008), the director of the Mormon Theology Seminar (www.mormontheologyseminar.org), and a managing editor at Salt Press (www.saltpress.org). The Mormon Review recently featured his essay on the film Groundhog Day, which was highlighted here on T&S. Adam has planned a series of posts on George Handley’s recently-released book Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River.... Read more »
Bruce Feiler’s daughter was just five when she pitched him a question right to the gut of religious experience: “Daddy, if I speak to God, will he listen?” Feiler writes books on the Bible and God for a living, so he’d presumably given the question some thought. Nevertheless he had no good answer ready for his daughter. So he did what any loving parent would do: answered the question with an inartful dodge, and then wrote about it in the New York Times style section. How do we answer our children’s questions about God, he asked, when we are... Read more »
In debates over controversial religious issues, one often encounters a certain kind of argument from history, a sort of “once upon a time” argument. Once upon a time, it’s argued, the Church considered a given practice or belief, from witchcraft to usury to the heliocentric cosmos, to be immoral, unbiblical or otherwise forbidden. The particular practice or belief in question varies, but the structure of the argument and its implication are nearly always the same: the Church once considered such-and-such to be evil, but now it doesn’t; thus by means of a progressive trope of enlightenment, the argument proceeds,... Read more »
Most of the commentary that I have read on Elder Packer’s talk (and I have not read widely) treats the decamped rhetorical question as an emotional and political flashpoint. But I think it’s more productively understood as a confounding question of theology, even theodicy. The removal of those nine words from the published version does nothing to resolve the underlying doctrinal problem. First let me say that I understood Elder Packer’s talk to take up implicitly but very clearly the question of the origins of homosexual desire. Others interpret it differently, but that was how I heard it at... Read more »