Hope in the Darkness

Hope in the DarknessExactly one week before President Uchtdorf offered his beautiful General Conference address suggesting that there are genuine reasons why some members of the church may doubt, I attended a conference in New York City, dedicated to that very theme.

The official title was “Negotiating LDS History and Faith Challenges.” The speakers were Richard Bushman, Fiona Givens, and Terryl Givens. It was sponsored by The Temple and The Observatory Group.

This is the part where I am about to share my notes. It is also the part where I explain that they are neither perfect nor complete: the conference was 6 hours, and I only had my phone to tap the words and sentences that meant the most to me.

Richard Bushman spoke first. He mentioned the importance of keeping fellowship alive, and then mentioned the many conversations he has had in person or in email with brothers and sisters who have historical (or other) concerns.

One of the first things he asks such members is what they still believe, and what their morality is, so that they do not suffer a collapse. He thinks that one of the biggest dangers when someone gives up on his or her Mormonism is that he or she gives up too much of it.

One of the second things he asks is about marriage. He recognizes that when one partner experiences a faith challenge, one or both partners can feel betrayed. It requires a renegotiating of marriage now. Spouses have to be very tolerant of one another, and trust in each other’s sincerity. There also must be sympathy on both sides. Each partner must be committed to working together and listening to one another.

Richard thinks that it is possible for closed mindedness to occur on either side. At this point he mentioned several members who are both very thoughtful and very faithful. Among them were Laurel Thatcher Ulrich and Clayton Christensen. He does not think it fair to say that they do not really believe, or that it is not possible to be both rational and Latter-day Saint.

Next he offered a “piece of advice.” “Keep looking, keep investigating. We all should be investigators. We all should be asking questions. Sometimes things that appear to be damning prove not to be. Try to find out why something troubles you. Sometimes it is not a matter of fact, but a matter of theology.”

Here he used the specific example of the Book of Abraham/Joseph Smith papyri. ‘Many of the critiques are correct, but, the translations themselves are remarkable, and in line with other writings.’ One theological question might be, “Would the Lord let His prophet do something while not understanding it?” Again, “Try to get to the heart of the matter–what disturbs you the most.”

To complicate matters further, Richard added that all of the questions are fraught, because Mormonism is not simply a set of claims of what happened in history (though it is that too). It is also a religion, what people turn to for a guide. “Connections with a religion are why the other questions become so explosive.” Still, we should face up to every fact. We should deal with them.

Once Richard was asked by one of my California professors how he could believe in Mormonism. Richard’s answer was that when he lives the way that Mormonism teaches, he finds that he is becoming the man he wants to be. He feels a responsibility to be a good person.

Then he told us that his own questions have changed over time. His first question was whether Joseph was a magician. It is a question that has come and gone.

Sometimes he is asked how new members feel when they learn that Joseph Smith engaged in polygamous marriages with young women and/or married women. He has found that the ‘people most destroyed by truths of Joseph Smith are often those who have been raised in the church.’ They are the ones who were taught a cleaner history: they are the ones who expected more.

“We all have to make our own Mormonism… facilitated by people asking, ‘What do I really believe.'” “Sunday School becomes much better when real problems are brought up that we have to wrestle with.’ This is not to say that he thinks that every problem should be brought up in a list, but that they should be integrated. “When we talk about the scroll of Abraham, talk about the whole story from the beginning.” “Claudia is the expert at bringing up problems and disrupting Sunday School.” A pause and then, “She always makes them better.” How do we do this well? “Be pure in heart.” If you are pure in heart “you can get away with a fair amount.”

A question was raised about the Book of Mormon: Is it a meaningful mythology or is it true historically? ‘Some people will stay Mormon if they believe the first, but if that becomes the norm, Mormonism may lose its vigor.’

Before Richard closed, he suggested that we try to loosen up our minds, and ask how people we admire might approach various questions. (I should start wearing bracelets that say, ‘What would Kristine Haglund/Claudia Bushman/Laurel Ulrich do?) Then he said what, to me, was the most beautiful part of his entire presentation: “I am a very skeptical person. My big problem is God. It’s not the Book of Mormon. It’s God. I pray to God, ‘I’ve never seen you. I can’t hear you. I have no way of knowing you’re there.’ But, if I try to live in a Godly way, the Spirit does come to me.”

Fiona spoke next, and it was more lovely than I can explain. She talked about spiritual immune systems, and the way that they can be compromised. Then she talked about the nature of God, and our understanding of the fall “that should be different, but really isn’t,” and our understanding of sin “that should be different, but really isn’t.”

Joseph said that we need to know 1) that God exists, and 2) God’s correct character.

Fiona likes the adjective of searching the scriptures, because searching is important in finding the real God. “Are you praying to the Old Testament God?” She is not. “Extra canonical searching is really important.”

God nourished the woman in the wilderness. “How does God nourish a church in the apostasy? The apostasy was full of truth. Joseph was quite clear about that. He wasn’t trying to restore truth. He was trying to restore priesthood keys.” Handle’s Messiah is one of the most beautiful religious music we have, and it came to us during that time.

She is a textual reader. There is something there that is extraordinary: The Book of Moses; Enoch. “It is not, ‘Why are you crying?’ It is, ‘How can you cry? You are the author of heaven. I heard heaven was a happy place.’ He asked the question three times.”

“God answers that it is because He sees that we will suffer. God subjects Himself to our pain. Enoch is called the weeping prophet in other texts, because he represents the weeping God.” This weeping God is the God Fiona prays to; it is the God she can adore. (Me too, Fiona. Me too.)

Next she quoted Bonhoeffer. (I may or may not have recorded it perfectly.) ‘God wins power and space in this world by being vulnerable.’ Her son served a mission in an unsafe area in an unsafe part of California. He and his companions were protected by the gangs. Why? Because “these young men chose to be vulnerable. They did this.”

“We call it a fortunate fall, but that is really unfortunate, because it is an ascent.” “Eve has a Hegelian tragedy.” She was a heroine not because it was an emotional moment, but because it was a rational one. “It will give her wisdom.” It was “not a commandment not to eat it, but a warning: you will die.” “Where was Adam? We have to ask ourselves.”

It took the great mystic, Julian of Norwhich, twenty years to get an answer to her prayer. “There can be a sense of hubris. We need to approach God with a sense of humility. We also need to consider that we may be asking the wrong questions.”

“Our scriptures make clear that we have to taste bitter to know sweet. Sin is educative.” “Our fall does not prevent Him from loving us. It is Satan creating wedges.” It is good to keep in mind that one definition of guilt is “prick sharply.” It is even better to keep in mind that “the embodiment of God is Christ. His love never changes for us. He is the healer, the cleanser.”

Then she spoke about the scripture “be ye therefore perfect,” and how it might be “the most horrendous scripture we have.” “Perfect means wholeness; fills the measure of our creation. That is all.”

In the case of prodigal children, “time is inessential to the Lord.” A mother may not be able to rescue her children, but that is okay. She once felt God say, “Did you not know I knew you were dysfunctional when I sent my children to you? Did you love your children with everything you have? He is my child. I will take care of it.”

We need to be very kind to ourselves. “Lehi was desperate to get out of the wilderness. Stay a little longer, and then the vision comes.” “Don’t abort your faith journey. It will take us all over the place.”

Joseph is a universalist, which suggests that there is transition between kingdoms. “If progression is eternal then there has to be transition between kingdoms. … If we can’t come home, then there is something wrong with the plan.”

Like Richard, Fiona suggested that we keep investigating: “Look for truth everywhere.” We have to reach high, but we also have to plummet.

She has never experienced righteous anger–not from anyone angry at her, and not from God. “This life is crucial in our preparation to meet God. He actually said it was so awful, he would make it short.”

“The word that permeates our cannon is ‘remember.'” “Sometimes we are really joyful, and sometimes we are really pained.” The joy often comes in bursts; the pain is often more prolonged. President Uctdorf once said, “Hang on to memories of joy.”

The story of the prodigal son is also the story of the father. God is watching, waiting for each one of us. He runs out to us.

Fiona read Margaret Barker on her conception of the wicked. She suggested that the wicked are lucifer and the fallen ones. Only them. Even our own Brigham Young said, “I believe all people want to be good.” “Is Judas Iscariot a son of perdition? Did he not feel remorse?”

Terryl spoke next. He told a story that I wish I could remember better, about an important door, that could not be broken into because there was a dummy keyhole: “Philosophy is what you do until you figure out the right questions.”

There is both the use and abuse of reason. We tend to privilege reason, but there are also other avenues. “We rely upon art. We rely upon love. We rely upon conscience.” Among other things, these additional pathways help us discover “the true meaning of the other.” ‘Science can tell us about the world, but it can’t tell us why we should care about the stars, or how a child should live.’

‘We look to religion to deliver us from ambiguity, but that might not be what we should expect from religion, or from our religion. Christ and Peter tried to stir us up.’ When Christ’s disciples were asked if they would also go away, they answered, “To whom should we go?” They did not say, “Of course we would stay.” “We expect a road map and what we find is a compass, or maybe a liahona.” This is how it had to be. It is not a failure.

What do we know? What did Nephi know? “That the Lord loveth his children.”

Mormonism offers a salvation that is relational. God is relational. (To me, this is one of the best things we learn from Joseph Smith.) Here Terryl mentioned ordinances. He suggested that God might say of them, “‘If you want to have a relationship with me, I will give you rituals where you wed each other and me.’ Are they arbitrary? Of course.”

Before or after this, Terryl asked, “How can faith be moral?” He believes that it is a choice. There is ‘no basis in scripture of leaders being moral: Abraham lied. Sariah beat her servants. The Apostles argued with each other over who would be the greatest.’ And so forth.

Someone very close to Terryl read Rough Stone Rolling when he was on his mission, and wrote him a letter that it was the most faith promoting book that he had ever read, because “if God can work with Joseph Smith, maybe he can do something with me.” God works with fallible people, because it is the only kind he has.

“Inspiration is uneven and unpredictable.”

Terryl shared a great story about an early bishop named Edwin Woolley who was known to disagree with Brigham Young. Brigham called him in one day to chastise him, and then said, “I suppose you will go and apostatize now?” Bishop Woolley answered, “That’s exactly what I’d do if this were your church.” It seems like a beautiful attitude to foster.

“Work for the cultural change we want to see happen.”

There are many kinds of silence. Among them is the silence Joseph Smith experienced when he wrote, “He has kept his purpose from my eyes,” and all he could do was weep on his people’s behalf. ‘Many of the greatest and noblest souls have experienced a quiet, sealed heaven.’

Celebrate your doubts, and be grateful for them, ‘not as an end in themselves, but as a condition for what doubt leads to, which is faith.’ In many ways, our spiritual life has to be private. It has to be mediated by ourself alone.

The Doctrine and Covenants hints at the differences between the gift to believe and the gift to know. An atmosphere where everyone can feel the spirit is really important.

One of my last notes from Terryl’s talk is on the word “peculiar” we sometimes toss around, as if it means strange. Rather, it comes from the word “pecuniary.” We are to be a purchased people.

The next few parts of the conference were some of the best. Richard invited those in attendance to try very hard to imagine themselves in the Bishop’s or Stake President’s shoes when someone comes to them with doubts. What would we say? What would we want to be said?

Almost every respondent answered that it helps to be validated; it helps to be understood. Kindness also goes a long way, as does treating the questioner with trust that he or she is coming from a good place and a sincere one. Their questions do not reflect unfaithfulness or immorality, but rather may reflect deep faith and love.

It was also acknowledged that just as in a marriage relationship, both parties may feel threatened and afraid. This makes sense, because their identities are at stake. We must try very hard not to speak from defensiveness.

Sometime later, a question was asked about the Ordain Women movement. Claudia Bushman was called to the front. She was hesitant to answer, because in her words she “wasn’t prepared.” One thing she did say is that “it is interesting, and she sees why people think it is a good idea.” Still, it makes her a tad bit nervous. She went on to elaborate that women are in a very tricky position in the church, because they are “not given a voice,” or at least not the same voice or influence as men. She thinks we need to think very hard about another way. She likes to see women organize laterally. Sometimes “wards diminish our ability. Make more and more connections across wards and stakes.” There does have “to be a paradigm shift of how women are viewed.”

Fiona responded to the same question. She visited the temple a few days before, and heard the temple president use the phrase “Heavenly Parents” four times. The new temple film is transformative for her. It is closer to where it needs to be, and suggests to her that we are getting there. A little bit later: “I don’t want more of the same. I want the priestesshood.”

Richard asked the audience a second question: what are the most troubling issues? Some of the answers that were given were ones I was expecting, like gay marriage and women’s issues, as well as the limited access average members have to leaders in Salt Lake. I believe feelings of betrayal from historical issues was also brought up. Other answers were more specific, and sometimes more surprising to me.

Last of all, Richard asked himself and the Givens, “What is it that we really like about being a Latter-day Saint?” Their answers were tender. Terryl believes that the gospel as Joseph gave it to us has more truth and more fulness. He chooses to believe, even in the absence of certain knowledge. Fiona deeply appreciates that Mormonism places Christ “front and center.” What she does know, is that Christ is the Son of God. Richard spoke briefly of his love for Latter-day Saints themselves. “Mormon people as a group are magnificent.”

My answer would be that I love God (both Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother), and I love the plan of salvation. I feel firmly that birth and death are part of that same plan, and that Christ’s grace and mercy are at the center. I also feel firmly that heaven is not just a nice place that we are striving to go, but that it is home. It is where we came from. It is where we belong–all of us.

How would you answer Richard’s three questions? :

What would you want a bishop or other ecclesiastical leader to say to one who doubts?

What do you think the big issues are?

What do you really like about being a Latter-day Saint?


Rachel is a PhD student in Philosophy of Religion and Theology at Claremont Graduate University. She co-edited _Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings_ with Joanna Brooks and Hannah Wheelwright. She is also a lover of all things books and bikes.

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20 Responses

  1. Ben S says:

    It really was good. My notes (including some asides to myself which you should ignore) are here.

  2. Elaine says:

    I really loved this. Thank you for sharing your notes. It made me wish I were there to experience, listen, and engage first hand.

  3. Aimee says:

    Thanks for writing this up, Rachel. I hope to be able to attend the one being held in DC this month. It sounds wonderful!

    I’ve been asking myself why I’m a Mormon most of my adult life. It’s actually a spiritual exercise I really enjoy. For me, the doctrine of infinite individual and human potential taught in Mormonism is exhilarating. I love believing in a God who believes in US, who doesn’t just ask us to trust Him/Her but actually puts a lot of faith in US to carry out divine work. I love Mormonism’s teachings on the importance of sealing/healing the whole human family, and in the promise of eternal human relationships. For me Mormonism has the potential to be a beautiful teacher for how to relate to God and relate to others in a way that elevates our self-understanding as well as how we can love and understand others. That’s what it has been in my life, in large part because of the individual Mormons I’ve known who live that way. It’s what endears Mormonism to me, and why, deep-down, I’ll always be one.

    • Caroline says:

      what Aimee said!

    • Rachel says:

      You are very welcome, Aimee.

      I am so happy that you will likely get to attend the DC conference. It was more beautiful than I had hoped. I wish I could attend all of them on the East Coast, as Richard told me afterward that the NY conference had a somewhat different feel than the previous one in Provo, because the questions raised were different.

      I think that that question is so valuable, because of the personal reflection nature of it. For me it does the same thing that one of Richard’s earlier questions does: What do you believe, now? All of your answers are deeply meaningful, and highlight some of my favorite things about Mormonism too!

  4. Caroline says:

    Awesome write-up, Rachel. Thank you!!

    I like certain aspects of Mormon theology, for sure. I embrace the idea of a finite limited god (male and female) who weeps with us and works with us and wills us to do better. I like a lot of things about the Mormon community and the way they rally around people to help them in times of crisis. There are a lot of other things too, but I’ll stop there.

    • Rachel says:

      You are welcome, Caroline!

      Those are already wonderful things to like. The weeping God is compelling to me, too, which is one of the reasons Fiona’s words felt so meaningful when I heard them. That is the God that I am still coming to know. I like the way Mormons serve and support each other as well. Thanks for chiming in!

  5. DEC says:

    Love this!

    I have spent a fair bit of time on the nature of God. Much time was spent on the idea of omnipotence. is God omnipotent? the answer came to me in the form of the rhetorical question, ‘If God is all powerful, can He make a rock so heavy He can’t lift it?

    Once I pinned God into an impossibility, I had to abandon omnipotence. Along with that goes omnipresence – maybe.

    Now H had to construct my own idea of God. Who is He? We know god to be an exalted man, which grings the question, how did He get exalted? And from where does He derive his power? To mind came the scriptures about all knowledge being useful, and the Glory of God is Intelligence. Intelligence as in Knowledge.

    Slowly, the pieces came together to paint a picture not of a marionette playing the universe by pulling strings, but a God in tune with the universe. Eventually, I can to understand He became, and we become Gods not so much by bending the universe to our will, but by submitting to it.

    The beginning was as I contemplated the creation, how we learn in the King Follett Discourse that God did not create the universe so much as he organized it. And i recalled the great law of physics, ‘matter cannot be created, nor destroyed’.

    And I began to see that the power of God was not in making the universe do what He wishes it to, but rather, in becoming one with the universe. By learning all the laws and rules that govern the universe, that make the planets spin and crate atmospheres and gravities. And also learning the properties of mass, and all the chemistries, and biologies, and working within the eternal laws to accomplish his purposes. Laws we may not yet comprehend. Laws we learn in school, of physics, and thermodynamics, and relativity, and so on.

    And then I begin to understand there are spiritual laws in place as well. These are the laws I am yet learning, laws of Obedience, and Charity, and Consecration, and of Faith, and Repentance. Laws the secular world rejects, but are no less important to the operation of the universe. After all, we know that every blessing obtained is through obedience to the law upon which it is predicated. This applies all mankind.

    So I see a God that understands perfectly all the eternal laws that govern the universe. That first God obtained that perfect knowledge, and spread the joy.

    And my purpose in this short sojourn is to investigate, and more fully understand the physical laws of the universe that can only be obtained by the possesion of a physical body. Also, I must use my limited spiritual vision to learn as best I can the spiritual laws of the universe. And lastly, I must learn to control the savage, raw emotion of the human body. How intensely we must feel compared to only the spirit! How sharp, poignant, painful, exciting the emotions we feel must be compared to before!
    Those familiar with education business will understand what an Individual Education Plan is. (You can google it) I firmly believe that all participants in the human experience have their own IEP. God knows us, and knows what we need to work on. Our lives are a series of challenges to assist us in the accomplishment of whatever we mutually agreed upon in our discussion of this life. Some would marry, some would not. Some would suffer illness, or poverty, disease, wealth, disaster and so on, all in an effort to teach us compassion, dignity, charity, hope, gratitude, perseverance and so on. Your life belongs to you, because you had a say in how it will be. You agreed to it.

    This is the understanding Mormonism gives me about the purpose of my life. The doubts I have about the church become irrelevant when I remind myself of what I have learned. What Joseph may have done, or not done become his to deal with. this is not to diminish the effect they have upon others, because their doubts are their own, but it helps me understand that we all face different obstacles, by design. This is why we reach out and help each other.

    And in the end, we too, will hopefully come to understand so perfectly the laws of the universe, and become perfectly obedient to them, and obtain our own exaltation. We will understand the laws of mass and weight dispersion that enabled Christ to walk upon the water. We will understant the chemical principles that enabled mud and spit to disspate blindness, though they seem so miraculous and incomprehensible to us today.

    And these things give me Hope, the better of the two great Motivators. Hope in the darkness, that I am seeing the light.

  6. Emily U says:

    Thanks for this Rachel. I’ve been curious about these conferences with the Bushmans and Givenses so I appreciate you taking such good notes and sharing them with us.

    I loved what Aimee said about being a Mormon and couldn’t have said it better. I sometimes think my life would be in some ways better (and easier) if I wasn’t a Mormon, but I just can’t stop believing in and being attracted to the things she mentioned.

    What are the big issues? For me THE big issue is the centrality of gender to Mormon theology. This is unique in world religions, as far as I’m aware. If God is a heterosexual couple and if God’s ultimate purpose is to put children on the path to become like them, then we have a serious problem in knowing how our homosexual sisters and brothers fit into that. Not only do we tell them they have no ability to experience the fullest Mormon life on earth, but if gender (and, I assume) sexuality are eternal and our characters upon our death flow into the next phase of existence, we tell them that they are barred from eternal progression to Godhood as well. Assuming they continue to be homosexual. I can only envision my sexuality continuing to be part of my identity, and I imagine that is true for most people, gay or straight. Given the current doctrines this is an intractable problem, and very troubling.

    An immediate big issue is that the Church does not recognize women as fully mature human beings. They are forever presided over both in church and in their families. However, I see Mormon theology as transcending this temporary and very terrestrial state of affairs and believe it will change on earth, and be fully resolved in heaven.

    • Aimee says:

      You said it perfectly, Emily :”However, I see Mormon theology as transcending this temporary and very terrestrial state of affairs and believe it will change on earth, and be fully resolved in heaven.” I really do believe that about both gender inequities and our limited understanding about the future for homosexuality. I really liked Taylor Petrey’s Dialogue essay about the possibilities Mormon theology presents for eternal homosexual relationships. I believe Mormon theology and ritual has the potential to be much more expansive than is currently configured and I pray we may keep seeking revelations, both personally and institutionally, that continue to increase in Godly knowledge and compassion.

  7. Christian J says:

    Rachel, I wish I would have known you were throwing this up. I might have skipped doing it myself.

    I only say that because you clearly have a much better memory! And articulated the finer details really well!


  8. Christian J says:

    I especially appreciate your exact telling of the Bushman quote: “I’ve never seen you. I can’t hear you. I have no way of knowing you’re there.’ But, if I try to live in a Godly way, the Spirit does come to me.” Truly touching.

  9. Sarah says:

    Hi Rachel, thanks so much for this post. Reading your notes is a comfort to me; I can only imagine what it would be like to attend in person.

    I have two questions. When they talked about transitioning between kingdoms – do you think they would also assume that one could go from a “lower level” of the Celestial kingdom to the “highest level”. I have always been taught that you could move between kingdoms, but not from a lower level to the highest *within* the Celestial kingdom. I never agreed with that teaching, and I wondered if you have a sense about what the Bushmans and Givens would say about that. I’ve heard that Joseph was a universalist – do you have any sources for that?

    Also, when Terryl talked about rituals being arbitrary. Do you think he believes ordinances are necessary – even though the form the ordinances take could have been different. In other words, are the ordinances *symbolic* or does, for example, a sealing have *actual* power to bind a couple. It something I’ve wondered, and I would love to know their (and your) take on it. Hope those questions make sense. 🙂

    Thanks again, Rachel!

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