Why I Go to Sunstone

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Today is my first day at Sunstone. Several people have asked me recently why I go to Sunstone, especially given my relationship to the church. Since I've already written something that addresses that question, I'm posting it here. This essay was published last year in Sunstone's print journal. It's kind of long, but if you're interested, here it is.

"What are you doing at Sunstone, then?"

It's a question I am asked each year. Sometimes the question is posed with genuine curiosity; sometimes it's an accusation. Why would someone who isn't a practicing or believing Mormon attend a symposium on Mormonism? It's also a question I asked at one point. Although I had read, subscribed to, published in, cited in my own scholarship and learned from the print version of SUNSTONE for years, I never attended a symposium until 2001--and the decision finally to do so wasn't easy. Early in 2001 I submitted an essay for publication; a few months later I got a message from Dan Wotherspoon, letting me know that he'd accepted the essay, and requesting that I read a version of it at the symposium. I told him I'd think about it.

"Why would I want to go to that?" I asked myself. "It's all fine and good in print, where you can read what intrigues you and ignore what doesn't, and nobody interrupts the author in the middle of a point. But this live version...I'm sure it'll just be a bunch of disgruntled inactives arguing about stuff with a bunch of bossy hard-liners"--and I'd seen and participated in enough of that already. But Dan was graciously, persistently insistent that I'd enjoy the symposium, so I queried a few friends who had attended.

"Of course you should go," they told me. "For every panel that doesn't interest you, you'll find one that does. And you'll meet so many incredibly cool people."

So I went. And Dan and my friends were right--so right, in fact, that I've been back every year since, and plan to go again. But what is it that draws me?

The short answer is that Sunstone is a place where I can ignore pronouncements about what I should believe and value and figure out what I do believe and value--about my own history, my own faith, about how to move through this complicated world as a moral, ethical person, all the while employing a vocabulary and frame of reference shared by the people I'm talking to. I certainly can and do spend much of my time pondering questions of ethics and truth with people who have no connection to Mormonism, but sometimes it's nice not to have to explain how the particulars of my Mormon upbringing affect my views on larger questions of spirituality and ethics.

The long answer goes something like this:

I try to accept that Sunstone is everyone else's forum as much as it is mine. I know there will be plenty going on that doesn't matter to me, and that's OK. Chief among the panels or presentations that don't interest me are any that focus on Joseph Smith. He may or may not have been a living prophet once, but he's not a living prophet any more--at least not to me. I find him only marginally more interesting than, say, Mary Baker Eddy, founder of Christian Science; or William Miller, the farmer from Upstate New York and Baptist preacher whose apocalyptic visions help launch the Second Great Awakening of 1820s and 30s. But I accept that to many people, even to people who are no longer or never were faithful Mormons, Joseph Smith and his teachings are of vital interest--after all, he made a lasting impression on US history, and he shaped an institution that affects millions of lives. And I don't discount the possibility that the right presentation could succeed in making Joseph Smith's life compelling to me again.

Nor do I worry much about the daily workings of the Church. At the time I'm writing, Gordon B. Hinckley is still president, but I can't name his councilors. Weeks will go by in which I don't hear a single mention of the church. Unless the Church takes a political stand, I don't see the current institution as having much effect on my life. But these days I don't live in the inter-mountain West where I spent my childhood. If I did, I might feel differently.

What I do care about is how my training as a Mormon has shaped and continues to shape the choices I make and the ideals I espouse.

Primo Levi wrote, "Changing moral codes is always costly; all heretics, apostates, and dissidents know this." I would add that changing moral codes rarely involves a complete renunciation of one's old ideology. Often the change comes because a beloved and honored aspect of the ideology (for instance, an emphasis on disciplined religious study and the belief that each person should ask for confirmation that something billed as scripture is indeed a source of spiritual truths) somehow comes into conflict with another aspect of the ideology (such as directives not to probe religious mysteries or question the utterances of leaders). In such a situation, the first belief often is not abandoned; in fact, it is embraced all the more fully.

There are parts of my Mormon past I shed easily enough, parts I struggle to escape, parts I still embrace gladly and parts so inescapably central to who I am that it takes careful, deliberate scrutiny to tease them out in the first place--and even more work to understand them. How I see the world, what I find meaningful in the world, is irrevocably shaped by my Mormon upbringing.

For instance: I have ancestors who joined the Church in 1832. One of my ancestors survived the Haun's Mill Massacre only by pretending to be dead. I had two ancestors in the Mormon Battalion, one on my father's side and one on my mother's. One of my ancestors arrived in Salt Lake with Brigham Young and was named the first bishop of the city--indeed he was the only man to be bishop of the entire city. There are polygamists all over my family tree. Every one of my siblings has been married in the temple. I grew up in a town so Mormon that we held our high school prom in the church's cultural hall. One of the primary, crucial events of my life was my mission in Taiwan and the crisis of faith I suffered there. I even approach my job as an English professor in a way shaped by Mormonism: I love exegesis, or critical exploration of a text, and I know one reason for that is all those exercises I learned to do with scripture: leave it in context and see what it means; take it out of context and use it to explicate something; find something else to explicate it.

So if anyone can claim to be an ethnic Mormon, I think I can. And it is partly by virtue of my religious training and partly due to my temperament that I believe quite strongly Plato's maxim that "an unexamined life is not worth living." Thus, if the church somehow lost all its members tomorrow and existed only as a historical relic, I would still be concerned with scrutinizing and puzzling out how my present life has been shaped by my past, including the 26 years I spent as a devout Mormon, obeying the commandments, participating in the culture and passionately studying the doctrines of the Church.

Chances are slim that the Church will lose all its members tomorrow, and so I am also faced with the challenge of interacting respectfully with my parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, cousins and friends who remain in the church. I share with my family the legacy of sacrifice and creation given to us by our Mormon forebears, and I value that legacy. I chose to honor it by imitating my forebears and swapping a belief system I no longer find meaningful for something that offers me greater hope of grace and redemption, just as they did, while many in my family honor that legacy by remaining in the faith our ancestors chose. The challenge for all of us is to love and be happy for one another.

Maturity and generosity aren't always required in order to be happy for someone who behaves exactly as you believe s/he should, and is then rewarded for that behavior. But it can take maturity and generosity to be happy for someone who flourishes in a system that made you miserable, or in a system you don't approve of. How, then, do those who are gladly devout and those who are cheerfully inactive or excommunicated manage to share the cultural legacy of Mormonism and the network of relationships forged through Mormonism? For instance, should I cease to care about or pretend not to know people I loved on my mission, simply because I no longer believe what I preached then, that membership in the Mormon church is necessary to salvation? How do those of us who are no longer among the faithful reconcile a view of the world shaped by Mormonism with the sense that Mormonism is not adequate in helping us navigate the world? How do we avoid conflict with those we love who still rely on Mormonism as a moral and spiritual compass?

These are some of the questions that concern me, and I come to Sunstone because it helps me pose and answer those questions in meaningful, lively and constructive ways.

In March 2004, Karen Armstrong, one of my favorite writers and scholars, published The Spiral Staircase, a sequel to her earlier memoir, Through the Narrow Gate. In The Spiral Staircase, she discusses the difference between orthopraxy (right behavior) and orthodoxy (right thought), and convincingly cites the argument that in many religions, orthodoxy and doctrine are of little significance--what matters is behaving rightly, cultivating behaviors that change us for the better, regardless of what we believe.

This argument was so revolutionary and astonishing to me that I needed to explore it further. Remarkably, once I abandoned the idea that orthodoxy--that troublesome, unswallowable bone in my throat--mattered at all, I felt more at liberty to celebrate and embrace those practices inherited from Mormonism that truly have enriched my spiritual life. Thus I proposed a panel for the 2004 symposium: "Doing Things That Change Us: Mormonism as Praxis" (reprinted in SUNSTONE December 2004). I wanted panelists to consider the special benefits offered by cultivating religious habits and behaviors either unique to Mormonism or approached in a uniquely Mormon manner. I hoped the panel would be positive and validating for any audience: active, faithful Mormons could affirm those practices that reinforce their faith, while people who were no longer active or believing Mormons could acknowledge and remember what was valuable about their training as Mormons. The idea was to celebrate the ways in which Mormonism inculcates and encourages behaviors that truly do make us better people, regardless of belief.

That panel was one of the highlights of my five years at Sunstone--and I've been to some stellar presentations. It truly became a celebration, and no one in the audience seemed to think that anyone would need to justify a desire to identify and embrace the elements of our religious training that help us live lives of greater spiritual awareness and maturity, despite the fact that we had also shed elements of that training.

That's what Sunstone offers me: a forum where I can work to identify and embrace the elements of my religious training that help me live with greater spiritual awareness and maturity, which, admittedly, is something you can do at Church. But Sunstone also offers me a forum where I can ask if there have been elements of my training as a Mormon that get in the way of spiritual maturity, which is something you really can't do at Church. For me, it's about deciding, as consciously and deliberately as possible, what I want to keep and what I want to lose--and in order to do that, it helps to be around people who recognize some value in Mormonism to begin with, who don't think religion as a whole and Mormonism in particular are a waste of time. I am sure I will continue to encounter people who find it baffling that I want to discuss any element of Mormonism when I no longer subscribe to its doctrines; but at Sunstone, I also find people who understand where I'm coming from--and who are also willing to help me figure out where I want to go next.

I would differentiate here between community and kinship. I admit, I don't feel much of a sense of community at Sunstone: there are too many different groups devoted to too many different doctrines and too many people who don't fit in to any group for there truly to be a community. But I don't see that as a bad thing. That lack of cohesiveness means there's room to ask your own questions, spend an hour listening to someone else's questions. You may not agree with people or change their minds, but no one even pretends that that needs to happen. And at each symposium I have been lucky enough to meet someone who becomes a genuine friend, who challenges and inspires me not only for one weekend in late summer, but all year long.

A yoga teacher once explained the spiritual quest to me this way: it's as if we're all wandering through some giant maze of a corn field, the stalks too high for us to see who or what is in the next row. But if we're lucky, we find people we can wave to at those moments when we come out of a row, before we forge back down the narrow paths of the field, just so we remember that others are pursuing the same quest, even though ultimately, we must all do it alone. I buy that explanation; it resonates with my experience. Sunstone for me is the end of a row: I come out, take a deep breath, look around; I greet others seekers and hear something about their quests; then I get on a plane and head home, where I plunge once more into the maze.

4 Comments

One of the most interesting songs from the Gang of Four quoted Joseph Conrad: "We live, as we dream alone" (the song articultes the comma a bit differently, souding a bit more like "we live as we dream, alone"). I like Conrad, and I like the Gang of Four, but I admit that this vision of life seems bleaker than my own experience has taught me. I like your image of the ends of the rows -- we do have to do a lot of this work alone but we can sometimes count on comrades to help us, to guide us, and to rely on us. Life is good when our heads pop up at the same time, from time to time.

I really enjoyed this essay. I'm regularly asked why I don't just "move on" and ignore Mormonism, but as you said, it's our heritage, our spiritual training, and as much as we want to transcend its limitations, it is always there. So, for me anyway, part of getting beyond it involves reevaluating how it worked in my life and what it did to me, and most importantly, what I did with it. I'm not sure I can see myself going to Sunstone anytime soon, but I understand where you're coming from. Thanks for such a thought-provoking piece.

thanks, Spike, and JLo, for commenting on this piece. JLo, in the first ten or so years after I left the church, I found that one of the hardest things was dealing with people still in it who felt I should somehow erase the first two and a half decades of my life, because my continued interest in Mormonism made THEM uncomfortable and confused. I get to own my life, and I get to do what I want with my heritage. I like having some answers already formulated for when people probe this topic with me.

Okay, I really don't intend to become some kind of troll here, commenting on every random post from your archives, but I just happened upon this "Why I Go to Sunstone" essay and I have to say I love it. I wrote a similar, albeit not so well stated, blog post a couple months ago about why I'm okay with the Salt Lake Tribune calling me Mormon when I don't identify with the Church as much as I did a couple years ago.

I'm interested particularly by your statement about Sunstone being a place to "work to identify and embrace the elements of my religious training that help me live with greater spiritual awareness and maturity," and "ask if there have been elements of my training as a Mormon that get in the way of spiritual maturity," whereas you can't do the latter at Church, because I'm in a situation where I still attend Church (when my work schedule permits)--mostly so that my wife isn't in the position of having to deal alone with two small children in sacrament meeting--and I have found that I can do both of the things you refer to at church. I just keep the asking to myself, because I'm not out to disrupt anyone else's pleasant church experience. It is refreshing, though, to be in groups such as you find at Sunstone and be able to ask those questions out loud.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on August 10, 2006 10:00 AM.

Happy Anniversary was the previous entry in this blog.

Sunstone and Its Effect on Me is the next entry in this blog.

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