I know that “Gendering Mormonism” is true.
It is summertime now, and the living is (relatively) easy, but I still find myself thinking about a recent course I took called (you guessed it) “Gendering Mormonism.”
On both the first and last days of class we went around the circle. The first: to introduce ourselves and briefly share our conceptions for what the class would entail. The last: to share our final feelings on the class (i.e., how it touched us, what we learned, found meaningful, etc.).
It really did feel like a testimony meeting of sorts, and really was powerful, in the way a good testimony meeting can be. This is most likely because the course itself was powerful, as well as the subjects we discussed for three hours at a time, on Thursdays.
What made the class so powerful? Namely a thoughtful professor who was committed to creating an environment of respect (both for the academy and the religion), a TA (exponent’s own Caroline!) who taught me more about the history of the Relief Society in a short time than I had previously learned in my entire LDS life, a syllabus full of balanced reading material, presenting many, many perspectives, and classmates with real faces, experiences, and voices, to do the same.
This last point was actually one of the most important things for me, because it meant that everyone was at the table, presenting their own opinions from their own mouths. It is hard to vilify gays, or Catholics, or Pentecostals, or Evangelicals, or Latter-day Saints more conservative or liberal than you, when they are sitting around a table with you week after week, sharing their experiences, beliefs, and practices and asking you questions about your own, in a very sincere way, and when you are all reading the same challenging, inspiring, and sometimes depressing material.
Further, every student, LDS and not, was required to attend a three-hour block of services, to see the faith in practice and write about the gendered aspects of our worship.
Together these things resulted in genuine conversation, which was more than mere communication. There was asking for explanations when there existed a lack of understanding. There was peace in the way the French philosopher Levinas hoped for, that he believed could only happen when we see the other person as a human being, as a face, and as we enter into a real dialogue with them, of responsibility and response, where we are present to defend ourselves, and the other also.
So what topics did we cover—that I am so amazed that we were able to discuss reasonably and respectfully? Most of the things you might imagine, including every hard thing you can imagine. As my professor reflected,
One of the important aspects of the class was that [in addition to everyone being at the table] everything was on the table, including a number of subjects that would make many LDS church members and leaders squeamish. Over the course of fourteen weeks we discussed (and argued and joked and yelled about), among other things, historic Mormon feminism, Mother in Heaven, Mormon feminist theologies, gender identity and difference, women’s roles and experiences, Mormon women and second-wave feminism (with guest lecturer Laurel Thatcher Ulrich), masculinity, priesthood, patriarchy, polygamy, sexuality, homosexuality, and same-sex marriage (including, of course, California Prop 8).
This same professor later told us that he intentionally held some of the most sensitive topics to the end of the semester, because he hoped by that time that we would be able to trust each other enough to speak openly, honestly, and respectfully. It happened, which helped make participation in this course an immensely beautiful and enriching experience.
For these reasons, and others, I do know that this class is true (and that it is possible to discuss difficult things in an environment of learning and respect). With every fiber of my being.
How do you bring up (or engage in) difficult conversations that need to be had, in a constructive way?
What insights have you discovered in discussing such sensitive spiritual topics peacefully? What about when there are disagreements?