A few weeks ago, I attended the Negotiating LDS History and Faith Challenges presentation in Manhattan, organized by the Temple and Observatory Group and featuring Richard Bushman, Fiona Givens and Terryl Givens. I took some notes that I wanted to share with anyone who was not in attendance but might benefit from what was said. Upon realizing the choppiness of my notes and also my inadequacy in explaining the ideas and thoughts of the speakers, I hesitated.
What changed my mind was the interest from others and the desire to, at the very least, point people to an outline of the presentations and especially to point them to some of the referenced literature. If there is anyone out there who attended and would like to add a different or additional view of what was said, please do so in the comments. My own additional thoughts about specific points will be in parentheses. If there are exact quotes, I’ve used the appropriate punctuation, otherwise the notes reflect my best summary of what was said.
Richard Bushman spoke first and outlined the following points:
- Watch your moral compass when confronting questions of doubt or disbelief. Some may decide to throw all their values away, because of disbelief or feelings of betrayal on one or two points. This is a mistake.
- If you are married and wading through a faith crisis, be sensitive to the perspective of your believing partner. It may be terrifying for them.
- Beware of dogma on both sides. (I think he was referring in part to those who reject black/white thinking they see in the Church but end up being very much black/white in their opposition to the LDS Church or religion in general.)
- He was arguing against the idea that Mormonism does not engage thoughtful intelligent people and used a list of Mormons on the faculty at Harvard to illustrate his point. He added that these individuals are very much believers – not just doing it for cultural reasons etc.
- He began to discuss the problems of the Book of Abraham and cited the work of Kevin Barney, including his recent presentation in Europe. After acknowledging the challenges of the text, he summarized his main point as an agreement with Barney’s view: Critics of the Book of Abraham like to focus on the exotic Egyptian material; that is the strength of their argument. But what of the English Book of Abraham? That had to come from somewhere, and it’s an impressive text. (It seemed like he was essentially saying that we can keep an open mind about how things worked for Joseph, but looking at the final product as a determination of the value of the text is important)
- “Historical problems come and go.” Bushman cited the lack of any use of the word “polygamy” in Church publications for a good portion of the 20th century. Not because they were trying to hide something but because they didn’t know how to talk about it. He mentioned that the more we understand these issues and discuss them, the less of a burden they seems to be to the Church and its members. He predicted that the Book of Abraham would eventually be an example of this. “Let’s get the whole picture of the BofA out there.”
- While talking about our search for truth, he mentioned that he dislikes the term “investigator” because we should all be investigators.
- He then began to talk of this own faith and experience with Mormonism and the LDS Church. To boil it down, he described his faith in terms of the impact it has on his life. Does it change him for the better? Does it lead him to goodness? He then concluded by stating something to the effect of – the evidence of the power of Mormonism is found in the Mormon people.
(This talk was pretty straightforward and I appreciated his faithful approach to honest inquiry.)
Fiona Givens spoke next and outlined the following points:
- Referring to him simply as “Joseph”, she read the following quote: “If men do not comprehend the character of God they do not comprehend themselves”
- She read a relating quote about the nature of God from American Congregationalist minister Henry Ward Beecher. Of course my attempts to “look it up later” have been fruitless. But, you should all get a hold of Beecher’s work anyway. It’s in there somewhere.
- In reference to the idea of a suffering God, she cited Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I’m not sure on the exact quote, but its probably one of these: “Our God is a suffering God” or “(We are) summoned to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world.”
- She mentioned D&C 91, which was an answer to a question about the value of the Apocrypha. Reminding us that “There are many things contained therein that are true.” (She seemed to be making a point about the Mormon mantra of accepting and embracing truth where ever it comes from – stating, “The Apostasy was full of truth”
- Reminding us of the unique understanding of the Fall in Mormonism, she spoke of Eve as a “Mormon heroin”.
- Sin is essential for our journey
- Guilt/shame should draw us closer to God
- About Perfectionism: she reminded us of the different translations of the New Testament use of the word perfect. Essentially, its more correct to say – wholeness. We often misuse it.
- She mentioned the story of the Woman and the Dragon in Revelation 12, but can’t remember how she used it. (doh!) Still well worth the read though.
- Using the Book of Abraham, she painted a picture of a “waiting God”. Essentially, there is no cut off for “wholeness” but God waits for us to develop and grow – meaning forever. Of course, she explained this much more beautifully than I am able, but she essentially was highlighting Mormonism’s universalist heritage. She used some words from Joseph Smith to back it up.
- One of the most striking ideas she presented was the idea that love and wrath cannot co-exist and that she rejects them as a co-description of the God she worships. God is love – period.
- All this talk of universalism and a “waiting God” seemed to be a way for her to help people have patience with their own doubts and difficulties. To find faith in a loving God who accepts his children with grace. To recognize that God suffers with us.
(This talk had a profound effect on me and I absorbed a lot of the ideas pretty well, but its difficult for me to explain. What I heard was a plea to view God anew – ridding ourselves of the destructive ideas that run contrary to love and grace. Although I have not read “The God That Weeps”, based on reviews, it seemed like her talk loosely mirrored her thoughts from the book. So, I’ll be checking that out real soon.)
Terryl Givens spoke last and outlined the following points:
- Citing someone who’s name I can’t for the life of me remember, he said “Philosophy is what you do when you haven’t found the right questions.”
- We tend to privilege reason (suggesting that we shouldn’t)
- Faith is a choice
- Many of us want someone to be keeper of our conscience
- Some prophets are more inspired than others. (I don’t think he was implying that we should disregard certain prophets but that they all have different gifts)
- Overcome with evil = overcome with the suffering from evil
- Brother Givens retold the story of Helmuth Hübener: a German LDS youth who was executed because of his opposition to the Nazis. He highlighted the fact that his ward actually excommunicated him because of his views. (later posthumously reinstated into the Church after the war was over) The point of the story hit home to me in the Q&A when I personally asked the following question:
“You’ve written that we should ‘be grateful for our doubts.’ I have personally learned to do that. But that embrace of doubt does not go over well in our Church communities. How would you advise we address that tension?”
After relaying a story about a bishop who openly “did not know” but believed, he revisited the Hubener story by saying “Helmuth Hubener stood up to the Nazis and his ward family and we’re afraid of a little Church culture?”
- There was a phrase he used – “Solidarity with the desolate.” And this seemed to be part of a general point that living in doubt can be enlightening and powerful – especially in community.
- He later said something that related to this – “Cognitive Dissonance is a fact of our existence. I choose to believe.”
(As with Sister Givens’ talk, this one is hard for me to retell, though I was really effected by it in a positive way. Givens has written an essay called “Letter to a Doubter” (highly recommend) which he seemed to be referencing in his talk. In general, the message I heard was that we should embrace this life with all of its doubts and deserts. Be grateful for it. Figure out which of our assumptions about the Church or prophets etc. are false and leave them behind. Drinking deeply from the revolutionary ideas given to us through Joseph Smith will yield a beautiful image of God and our spiritual journey within God’s plan.)
There was a Q&A after each speaker and in the end a panel discussion. At one point, Brother Bushman asked the attendees about the top issues/problems that people struggle with. What I found fascinating was that, in general, Church history really didn’t come up. A much bigger problem, people seemed to be saying, was specifically how the Church approaches its history and especially, how the Church approaches those that find difficulty with history. All of the other topics mentioned were more relevant to how people relate to the contemporary Church as well – gay marriage, being single in the Church, temple wedding exclusion, correlation etc.
Another interesting note from Q&A: someone asked the panel what they thought of the Ordain Women movement. Brother Bushman invited his wife Claudia to stand and give her thoughts. She basically acknowledged the “2nd class” role of women in the Church, but also expressed doubt that giving women the priesthood was the answer. If I remember correctly, Sister Givens also expressed that there is a need for more female influence in the Church organization, but also expressed doubt that giving them the priesthood was the answer.
The meeting was actually a difficult time commitment for me- 10-3 on a Saturday, but well worth it in the end. A positive and encouraging spiritual presence was most certainly there and finding fellowship with the other attendees was surprisingly rejuvenating. I’m so grateful for those that put it together and especially those that spoke to us.
In a few days, I’ll probably post a “part 2″ of this with some additional thoughts about faith and doubt. For now, I hope this information will be useful to someone out there.
(PS. Christian J = CJ Douglass)