Thursday, August 12, 2010

Sunstone Symposium: Reflecting on Maturing Faith

"THIS SYMPOSIUM is dedicated to the idea that the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ are better  understood and, as a result, better lived when they are freely and frankly explored within the community of Saints.

WE RECOGNIZE that the search for things that are, have been, and are to be is a sifting process in which much chaff will have to be carefully inspected and threshed before the wheat can be harvested.

WE WELCOME the honest ponderings of Latter-day Saints and their friends and expect that everyone in attendance will approach every issue, no matter how difficult, with intelligence, respect, and good will."

-"Reflecting on a Maturing Faith" Symposium Motto

On Thursday, 5 August, I attended the Sunstone Symposium at the Salt Lake Sheraton.  Below, I catalog content and thoughts provoked by the seminars I attended.

Maturing Faiths: a Comparison Between Mormonism and Islam During their First Two Centuries

> Many other religions have in the past gone through the growing stage that describes the current LDS church in both A) size and B) age.  Thus, there is potentially much to be learned from the faiths (Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Jewish) that have gone before
> With greater age and size, religions- The theme of the conference was "reflecting on a maturing faith."  The LDS church is nearly two hundred years old and 14 million strong now- and several comparable organized religions have gone through the church's current age and size.  Thus, there is much to be learned by comparison!
> Useful comparison questions for maturing religions:
1) How to govern the people
2) How to transmit revelation
3) How to interact with seats of power/gov't
> Like the aging Jewish faith in Christ's day, Islam has for a long time had a Talmud-like commentary on the commentary on the Holy Qur'an.  Similarly, commentaries and commentaries on commentaries on LDS texts (especially authoritative prophetic statements and canon) increasingly flower. 
> The greatest slaughter in America attributable to religious fundamentalism was the Mountain Meadows massacre. (coincidentally I had a lively debate last night with my strict divine command theorist LDS friend about the ethical dangers of not questioning your leaders, using the MMM as evidence)
> Joseph Smith has been called the American Mohammad (and with good reason in my view- the Joseph Smith/Book of Mormon story is comparable in many important ways to the Mohammad/Qur'an account). > One of my favorite quotes from the speaker in response to a Q and A: "Who can explain Shi'ites?"  :)

Joseph Smith, Matthew Philip Gill, and the Dynamics of Mormon Schism

> This ex-LDS, 30 year old British man named Matthew Philip Gill imitates almost exactly the Joseph Smith story.  Matthew translated a 115-page book (The Book of Jeraneck: a Further Testament of Jesus Christ) from 24 plates in 2006; claims that Peter, James, John, Joseph Smith, Moroni (who came to him when Matthew prayed about the B of M according to Moroni 10:4-5, see Matthew's testimony), and John the Baptist have appeared to him; used the Urim and Thummim to translate; translated in a short time frame with a curtain between him and the man he dictated to.
> Matthew's Latter Day Church of Jesus Christ follows the 1838 Nauvoo structure, and claims Joseph Smith never taught or practiced polygamy.  (Apparently there are more historical sources indicating that he opposed the practice than there are the contrary, and section 11 of the Book of Commandments forbade the practice- hadn't heard that claim before.  Apparently Michael Quinn has some scholarship on the subject). 
> Matthew blogs and has youtube sermons and an official website, and presiding elder's testimony.
> By report, it seems he was sent home from his mission for having visions.
> (tangent) - three translations of the sealed portion of the Book of Mormon are available online.
> The LDCJC believes Stonehenge was an ancient Christian worship site. 
> Apparently Matthew still has the plates and you can see them if you get baptized.  Matthew's also opposed to gay marriage (the speaker chose to answer that subpart of a longer question I posed during the Q and A).   
> The LDCJC seems pretty chill and open: "If you wish to find out more you can contact us on the following email Alternatively you can call us by phone on 01283 735 705 or you can write to us at: 55 Sherbourne Drive, Hilton, Derbyshire, DE65 5NJ.  We hold regular Sunday meetings at the above address which are open to all they commence at 10 o’clock and end at one o’clock all are welcome so please feel free to come along."
> Insight: To me Matthew's story sounds ludicrous, but no more so than Joseph's likely seemed to many during his day.

Mormon Women's Forum

> For the first time in American history, this year, there are more women in the workforce than men.   Now, women earn 3 degrees for every 2 men earn.  The value of superior physical strength is much less important in the modern world than it has been historically.
> The question of women's rise coming at men's expense is a new feminist question- as is whether women will occupy a higher status than men.  The panelists favored equality over female superiority.
> Possible bias transparency: I remember in my family history an account of where my great great grandma, an LDS convert, gave a mother's blessing to her baby, whom the doctor had declared dead.  That baby is my great grandfather. 

> Panelist's noted:
- Mormon women are not encouraged to overcome society's valuation of men over women
-Bringing a child into the world, a strictly female act, is only recognized in the church when accompanied by a male-only baby blessing
- Many gospel truths contain female symbols.  Birth & baptism; atonement blood & the blood of giving birth; sacrament & breastfeeding.
- Women often aren't invited to Priesthood Executive Councils.
- Different decisions are made dependent on the inclusion of women (e.g. the temperature of the chapel- when the decision makers wear suits instead of skirts, the temp. will likely be lower)
- Wave ("a group of LDS women committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and interested in advancing gender equity within the LDS church.") and Feminist Mormon Housewives are popular internet resources for Mormon feminists.
- The "equal partners" language in the Family Proclamation is nice.
- The Mormon feminist movement and feminist movements more generally suffer from a lack of representation in their ranks of sisters in the developing world.
> If one were to go about trying to establish gender equality in the church, presuming that priesthood exclusivity tips the scales in favor of men, two primary strategies would be likely to succeed:
1) demean men in relationship to women, such that priesthood acquisition then brings the two into balance
2) exalt women in relationship to men
I have observed both in abundance.  Evidence:
Strategy 1) When I was in the MTC, I remember asking our middle-aged branch president why the idea persists that women are naturally better/more spiritual than men, noting how frequently I hear that idea expressed (the idea bothered me at the time).  He told me: "simply because it's true."  Another piece: the persistent theme in the church that men are most frequently the ones who cheat on or leave spouses, abuse and neglect their children, cause divorce, etc., so they must be the worse of the two sexes.  Further, polygamy shows that men are naturally worse since there are so many more righteous women than there are men: just take a look at current active women>men ratio in the church. 
Strategy 2) I have heard from LDS pulpits the idea that women, since they were created last, are God's "crowning creation," implying their superiority to men.  Also, women have the supernal role mother and wife, and are superior nurturers by nature. 

These relative to each other, men- denigrating and women-exalting themes are ill-founded and misleading if they aren't true.

-I would counter some of the pieces above by noting that though women on average are perhaps more emotionally expressive and use their MNS more frequently, this fact even if verified does not necessarily support a conclusion that women are more spiritual, since emotion is not equivalent to the Spirit.  To the contrary, the presumption that revelation reception rates for the two genders are very similar is a reasonable one- and if anything, the relatively greater stewardship sizes of men predisposes that gender to greater quantities of revelation ceteris paribus (all else being equal).
- Are baby boys in any way less than their baby girl counterparts?  When a mother gives birth to baby Matthew, does she bate her breathe until his ordination at age 12 for him to be equal to his sister Rebecca?
- I would note that if women were created last, men were created first, and Jesus was both male and the Firstborn.  If you're going to make a women>men claim on the basis of sequential creation, it seems that God makes His best creation first, so the crowning creation argument is at the least neutralized if not superseded.
- I would point out that focusing on nurturing and motherhood when addressing gender equality excludes the value of single and/or career-focused women.  Unless that focus is accompanied by a similar focus on providing/protecting/presiding and fatherhood for men which would also exclude childless and/or career-focused men, then the nurture focus leads to further inequality. 
- Since when are the roles of mother and wife more significant than the roles of father and husband?  Thus, focusing on the mother/wife role doesn't boost women relative to men absent a conclusion that mother>father and/or wife>husband.  As to the nurturing argument, I would argue that men nurture differently than women on average, but not necessarily worse or less (plus, the ultimate nurturing role model we have, Christ, is decidedly masculine).  Also, is nurturing more important than the male-associated roles of providing, protecting, and presiding, all identified in the Family Proclamation?  One must necessarily conclude as much to exalt women in relation to men on a nurture basis. (also see male nurturing article by BYU sociologist)
- See more of my detailed arguments in my Mormon feminist post.   Basically the conclusion is that, at the margin, men and women are equal up until 1) male-only priesthood, 2) male-oriented scriptural focus, 3) polygamy, and 4) patriarchal order tip the scales in favor of men.  

> Juxtaposing the Duty to God with Personal Progress reveals some significant differences.  A greater relative focus on career compared to parenting if evidenced in one, as is a greater adherence to the Family Proclamation in another.  The mission first, marriage second compared to marriage first, mission second is another focus inequity.  This isn't necessarily bad, except for perhaps some unnecessary guilt some feel for deciding to forego a season of marriage prospects to serve a mission.
> Similarly, some feel unnecessary guilt for meeting their needs by working outside the home.
> Stay-at-home dads may experience unmerited disapproval from other members as well based on reinforcement of stereotyped gender roles in the church; because of the "individual adaptation" clause in the Family Proclamation and other principles, this disapproval is usually unmerited.
> I wonder if women could always do in the LDS church what they currently can (bless the food in public, receive and use spiritual gifts, pray, speak, sustain, partake of the sacrament).  If not, then there has been progress toward gender equality in the church over time- and it's not an unreasonable extension to then consider allowing women to bless their babies, assume greater leadership roles, etc. 

A Crisis of Faith in Newtonian Mormonism

This seminar left me intellectually reeling!  Wowza!  His paper is here. 
> Abstract:  "This paper will explore the marriage of Mormonism to the Newtonian paradigm of truth.  The Newtonian worldview orients all of our cultural thinking and the Church has fully embraced its values. In this paradigm, the ego can use the notion of truth to self-aggrandize. A compelling invitation to wake up from both the paradigm trances of our ego and cultural truth is needed. Truth and reality begin to look differently when we are no longer held hostage to their spell. When we awaken, the Church's narrative of history/ideology can take on new philosophical meaning while providing alternative options of faith."  He delivers on the compelling invitation piece!!
> The church has incorporated a Newtonian worldview.  I think that's a largely accurate claim.  
> Many people face inconsistencies with the church and feel they must either stay in the church or reject it- Michael Farnworth, the 30 year professor of family psychology at BYU-I, says perhaps a different paradigm is a third option.
> When can you throw a rock into a pond without making ripples?  When it is frozen.  Similarly, when our minds are frozen by a paradigm, ideas or truths will not cause any ripples.  
> Truth = scientific + religious knowledge.  Yes? Is this a black and white, all-or nothing view of truth?  Is staying in the ego trance more important than being Christian?  The ego seeks to discredit other paradigms through torture, war, excommunication, ostracizing, ignoring, etc.  Is your faith merely an instance of ego?
> Does a literalist interpretation (of, say, the Adam and Eve story or the flood) devalue the stories and myths, the types and shadows which help us to understand the undescribable?
> Christ calls us to the truth about our relationships.
> An apostate and a faithful LDS can have the exact same paradigm.> The ego is arrogant, even without support.
> The Pharisee is the poster child of ego poverty.
> I noticed similarities to Don Miguel Ruiz's book, The Four Agreements, which claims that most people are thoroughly domesticated.  I find his claims largely accurate.
> I could go on, but I'm not liking the flow- so you'll have to check out his 19-pager if you want more.


  1. Thanks for summarizing for us! I'm sad to have had to miss it.

  2. Hey Brad. I read that paper you posted the link to about newtonian world view etc. I thought it was really interesting, though I don't think I understood a lot of it. It gives more insight into that discussion we had about authenticity and such. It also gave some good insight into the importance of charity. I'll have to give it another read when I get the time.


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