Book Review: First Principles and Ordinances

First Principles

Samuel Brown’s First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple is not a very big book, but it took me a big time to read, and a bigger time to think about. This is in part, because I could only read in little bursts of time confetti, one page here, three pages there, on walks to the water with my daughter, or at the nearby park. But, there is a another important part: it’s pages contain multitudes. For me, this meant that it benefited from a slow read, and also that every time I turned to its pages, I felt better–not just about Mormonism, which I might have expected, but about marriage, relationships, and community, which I didn’t quite expect.

It helps to know that First Principles and Ordinances is the second book in Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s “Living Faith” series, with Adam Miller’s Letters to a Young Mormon being the first, Steven L. Peck’s Evolving Faith, being the third, and Patrick Q. Mason’s, Plantedbeing the fourth. (If you, like I, noticed that there are as of yet no female authors, take heart, and please consider submitting something. It is a matter the Maxwell Institute is very much aware of, and very much would like to change.)

In this series, each author approaches a matter of faith personally and professionally, meaning that they write both from their life of faith and their life of scholarship, making it a clear and worthwhile attempt at Anselm’s “faith seeking understanding.”

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Where None shall Come to Hurt or Make Afraid

Last month, my family was in Nauvoo for a family reunion. One night we watched the Nauvoo pageant. As Joseph Smith is headed to Carthage, we are told that he goes there on “trumped up” and “false” charges. This was not entirely true; he was there for his connection to the Nauvoo Council’s decision to destroy the Nauvoo Expositor’s printing press. The few days we were in Nauvoo, we also went to Carthage and heard the story of the martyrdom multiple times at various historical sites. And I looked at my kids and thought, “Please, please, please, do not absorb the Mormon persecution complex. Please, please, pStatue of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Nauvoo Illinois lease.” I know what it does and it is not good.

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To say what is truth?

27I have not been able to stop thinking about an essay I read a few months ago: “Oh Say What is Truth? Understanding Mormonism Through a Black Feminist Epistemology”  The author argues that in Mormonism truth is acquired through feeling, citing D&C 9:8, as well as through lived experience; these are the ways we “find out for ourselves.”  These methods of determining truth are part of a black feminist epistemology set forth by Patricia Hill Collins, and the essay argues that her ideas are very close to Mormon methods of determining truth.

Taking feelings and lived experience a step further, Collins argues that a collective dialogue is essential to furthering and developing the truth that each person has acquired, and that each person has a moral obligation to share her truth.  Collins wrote, “The fundamental requirement of [a collective dialogue] is the active participation of all individuals. For ideas to be tested and validated, everyone in the group must participate. To refuse to join in, especially if one really disagrees with what has been said, is seen as ‘cheating.’” The essayist concludes, “Because we all have a truth to speak, to fail to speak our truth especially when it is needed most – when it is being contradicted – is to fail the community’s efforts to build collective, experienced-based truth as a whole body.”

I try to live as though participating in collective dialogue is a moral obligation.  For years I’ve felt that speaking my truth regarding gender equality in Mormonism is one of the important purposes of my life.  For example, Mormonism is patriarchal, but I believe patriarchy is a Judeo-Christian heritage not inspired by God, passed down through many years of unchecked sexism, and now entangled so that it touches nearly every aspect of Church culture and much of Church doctrine.  How do I live as part of a religious community with strongly held traditional beliefs and while hoping for radical change?

I do it by talking.  I use inclusive language, I comment often in Sunday School and Relief Society, I get up in fast and testimony meeting a few times every year, I give carefully crafted talks that are both diplomatic and radical, and I write for a Mormon feminist blog and paper.  I speak my truth wherever I can.  This can be scary because it opens me up for criticism and judgement, but it can also create unexpected connections with people who resonate with what I’ve said.  In the context of contemporary American life it may seem tame to speak truth in one’s own small community – others have spoken up at much greater cost than I have, and to greater effect.  But to do this consistently, to remain attached to a community that has expanded my spirit but also makes me weep, this takes courage and staying power.

So, my ideas matter, even if, or especially when, they are contrary to the status quo.  And if a collective dialogue is needed to develop and advance knowledge, then I need to keep showing up for that dialogue.  I also believe that organizations need insiders working for change for that change to become possible.

But here’s the problem.  What if I’m a lone reed?  In my experience there needs to be a critical mass of people in a Sunday School discussion to get an idea afloat.  It’s great when that happens, and the discussion becomes enlightening and enlivening.  But what if comments or questions fall flat and the teacher marches on with the lesson as planned?  What if people hold your truth in contempt, or possibly worse, just ignore it?  A dialogue in which everyone participates sounds great, but in does that ever happen in real life?  What if, as happened to me earlier this month, a First Presidency letter, the bishopric’s selection of the theme for sacrament meeting, and the material in the talks and discussions form a unified block of content that I don’t resonate with?  Are comments against such a backdrop useful, or contentious even if contention is not my intent?

I’m lonely and tired, friends.  So please, give me your stories.  When you speak up, how does it go?  What do you learn?  Does it create a spark for generating sincere discussion?  Or does your spark fall to the ground, extingushed?  If it’s the latter, what does that mean?

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Relief Society Lesson 12: Seek the Spirit in All You Do

Baltimore Sunrise by Aimee HickmanGuest Post by Trudy Rushforth

I was excited when I was asked to write this lesson plan. Seeking and living by the Spirit is one of the parts of the gospel that I really love. I think that it’s remarkable that we each have a direct line to the Almighty, unimpeded by any human intermediary.

With all of the varied expectations (family, friends, ourselves, our employers, church culture, etc.) pulling us in different directions, seeking the Spirit is essential. Also essential is allowing others the space to seek the Spirit for direction in their lives. Joyce Meyer, a pastor in the Midwest, has this to say on the subject: “Many people feel so pressured by the expectations of others that it causes them to be frustrated, miserable and confused about what they should do. But there is a way to live a simple, joy-filled, peaceful life, and the key is learning how to be led by the Holy Spirit, not the traditions or expectations of man.” [1]

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Heavenly Mothers Day: My Absentee Heavenly Parent

Many women—and men—yearn for our heavenly mother.

I don’t. When I believe in her at all, I tend to resent my absentee heavenly parent, just as an abandoned child would resent an earthly parent that doesn’t communicate with her child.

President Dieter F. Uchtdorf has taught that “We improve our relationship with our Heavenly Father by learning of Him, by communing with Him.” Reference A

If this is how strong relationships with deity are formed, it is obvious why I don’t have a healthy relationship with my heavenly mother, if she exists. I don’t learn about her in my Sunday meetings and communing with her through prayer is expressly forbidden.

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