Monday, August 12, 2013

"Worlds Without End" Panel: Sunstone Symposium 2013

The following is a formalized transcript (with some clarification here and there) of my presentation at the 2013 Sunstone Symposium. The panel discussed the blog Worlds Without End and was shared with Christopher Smith and Cheryl Bruno. The abstract read as follows:

In mid-2012,
Worlds Without End was launched by two non-LDS scholars to further discussion of Mormon Studies as an academic discipline. Contributors are experts in fields ranging from management to history to the Hebrew Bible. WWE is a demonstration of how disparate and varied concepts can shed light on Mormonism, its culture, and its people. This panel will discuss the blog's origins, non-LDS interest in Mormon Studies, and highlight several of the most interesting and compelling posts from the past year.

This is cross-posted at Worlds Without End.

I'm rather excited to be here. This is actually my first time at Sunstone. I'm from Texas and we don't see many conferences like this down there. I remember on mission in Las Vegas I was asked if there had been a lot of Mormon kids at my high school. Based on my experience, there had been a relatively good amount. I responded, "We had a few. About twelve." They replied, "We were thinking more along the lines of 200." I thought, "No, I can't say we had that."

And that's what it is like being a Mormon in the South. 

I've described myself as an active, oft-believing Mormon. My belief fluctuates depending on the day, what I'm reading, or what I'm thinking about. I was actually kind of surprised when Christopher Smith invited me to contribute to Worlds Without End. My friend Tyler Andersen (who is another contributor) had suggested me, but I was still personally surprised by the invitation. I'm not a historian. I really haven't been doing
Me (left), Chris (right)
anything in Mormon Studies besides reading a lot and participating in the online community. (For example, I had known Chris for a couple years prior through Mormon Dialogue and Discussion Board and Facebook.) I'm a business major. I'm not getting my Ph.D. in religious studies or sociology of religion or anything of sort, but I was nonetheless excited to break into the Mormon bloggernacle and see what I could contribute.

My first couple posts weren't too bad. The first one discussed the Greco-Roman understanding of grace and gratitude and its relation to Mormonism and positive psychology. The second looked at the psychological benefits of reading the Book of Mormon as you would a novel. But the third is where the very context of Worlds Without End really meant something to me. I had gone to see Sam Brown speak at a fireside in Arlington, TX on the subject of faith. He spoke a lot about choosing a relationship with God and how God chooses a relationship with us. At the time, it was something that I very much needed to hear. (I was also in the process of reading Terryl and Fiona Givens' The God Who Weeps.) I thought about Sam's fireside the rest of that week. I got home early one morning from my 12-hour night shift, sat down, and decided that I wanted to write my thoughts on Sam's fireside.

Now, I have a personal blog, but I'm not very personal on it. I try to keep it data-driven and philosophical (at least, as philosophical as a business major can be). But I wanted to talk about this idea of the weeping God and my chosen relationship with Him. I debated whether to post it on my personal blog or at Worlds Without End. But after reviewing Chris' vision for WWE, I decided this was content that belonged there.

I had a sister who died when she was eighteen (I was 11 at the time). In my post, I talked about how it affected me and how I came to think about death and the problem of evil and suffering. How did these things work within Mormonism? Did they work within Mormonism? I tried to coherently put my thoughts together and published it through Worlds Without End. This was by far my most personal blog post ever. It was here that the blog really came to life for me. This was not about (as Chris put it) the "insiders" and "outsiders" of Mormonism, but about coming together despite our differences and understanding a common purpose and drive. Even though Chris and others may not believe in a weeping God, they can benefit from my perspective and I can benefit from theirs. That's what I've noticed as a WWE contributor (I can't speak for audience members or random commenters): a unique blogging culture that is very supportive, encouraging, and loving, despite whatever theological or political backgrounds we might have. I still remember when Chris was introducing me as a new contributor on our Facebook page, he described me as "a Texas libertarian getting his MBA" (or something like that). I said to him, "Thanks, you've basically tarnished my reputation, you filthy socialist." (That's an ongoing joke I've had with him and others: they are all "filthy socialists" and I am a "filthy libertarian.") We can joke about those things and it is alright.

Don (left), Me (right)
After the Weeping God post, I began thinking about Don Bradley's 2006 Sunstone article "The Grand Fundamental Principles of Mormonism." Two of the principles Don identifies are "truth" and "friendship." I love how Don points out that when asked early on what the difference between Mormonism and the rest of Christianity was, Joseph Smith answered, "We believe the Bible and they do not."[1] A few years later, when Mormonism's doctrines became even more radical compared to traditional Christianity, the answer changed: "In reality and essence we do not differ so far in our religious views..."[2] Smith had become more interested in building bridges and bringing everyone into one grand whole. (Don argues that this was the beginning of an unfinished reformation and I think he is right.) The idea "to receive truth, let it come from where it may" stuck out to me.[3] "Have the Presbyterians any truth? Embrace that. Have the Baptists, Methodists, and so forth? Embrace that."[4] Bring all the goodness that you can into Mormonism.

I come from a Mormon paradigm. I was born and raised as a Mormon. That's how I understand the world. That's how I look at things. But it is always adjusting and in my interpretation of Mormon theology, it allows for it (and if objectively it doesn't, it should). I think being able to do this blog with Chris, Cheryl, and others allows us to find a community where we don't have to be afraid of each others' differences. We as individuals are often so worried about maintaining our own self-image and paradigm that we can become rather ferocious with people; people who may not even disagree with us all that much, but "err" in one point that we've become stuck on. But at Worlds Without End, I'm not scared to post anything. While some backlash may occur, the responses are usually constructive; seeking to refine the ideas you've laid out. The point is to help you become the best scholar and, ultimately, the best person you can be.

Me (left), Seth (right)
In his WWE post "A Defense of Sunstone," Seth Payne explained how the differing views found at Sunstone worked for him: "I am not suggesting Sunstone is the *only* place such questions can be explored. However, Sunstone was an appropriate and effective setting for me to ask questions and seek answers. My experience is not unique." Worlds Without End operates in a similar way for me. Commenting on Seth's post, Chris noted that this type of venue "humanizes scholarship and recognizes its practical, moral, religious, and relational dimensions. Sometimes scholarship gets so abstracted from human experience that we lose sight of what it’s all about." The very principle of Worlds Without End is this human notion: coming together despite our differences. The scholarship is important, but Chris hopes that this experiment expands beyond the limited confines of the blog. And in some small way, I feel like I'm living up to my religion by participating in this project and embracing the grand fundamental principles of truth and friendship. Bridget "Jack" Jeffries linked an inspired (as well as hilarious, though I'm not sure if that was her intent) comment to Seth's post:

The charges against [Sunstone]---that it's liberal, that it's heretical, that it fosters murmuring and apostasy, etc.---pertain to theological categories that I either do not recognize or do not care about. What might be called "conservative" Mormonism is still theologically liberal and heretical to me as an evangelical, so for those kinds of Mormons to accuse other kinds of Mormons of being those things means little to me on a personal level.

This is quite funny. Jack is upfront with her view: you're all heretics! But for those of you who know Jack, she's married to a Mormon. She got her undergrad at BYU. She doesn't dislike Mormons. She disagrees with them, but obviously she has plenty of love for them. She engages with Mormonism and thinks about it seriously. She goes on: "In any case, I want to be in dialogue with Mormons of all stripes, be they liberal, conservative, orthodox, heterodox, heretical, believing, ex, N[ew] O[rder] M[ormon], and everything in between..."

And that is what I feel at Worlds Without End. That is what we're trying to do. It isn't a blog solely for the Mormon fringe or for the devout. It is for any and all (sometimes not at all given our atheist contributors) and everything in between. We always hear in church that we should be an example to others. Your example will be more persuasive than any kind of argument. As cheesy as that sounds, it is true. I hope that the example set by Worlds Without End can have an influence on the way Mormon Studies is conducted (not to mention interfaith or human interaction in general). Embracing differences and viewing them as an opportunity to see from a different angle, obtain new information, learn more about yourself and others. The posts at Worlds Without End don't just focus on neat facts and historical tidbits, but often ask, "What do we do with that? What does Mormonism mean in the here and now? How does it, can it, and should it affect the world?" (Mormonism isn't just for some abstract heaven that may or may not exist.)

I think that was what Chris was hoping to achieve and so far, I think he's done really well. (I consider Chris and Bridget our fearless leaders. It takes guts to start a Mormon Studies blog as non-Mormons and to go out and round up a posse.) As a business major, I usually look at things from a practical manner: What can we do with that? How do we implement it? But part of the problem with modern management and corporations is the dehumanization of data. Many times, they do not think in human terms, only in numbers. Similarly, Mormon Studies can potentially be thought of in abstract terms and not in terms of human well-being. I hope that as Chris, Cheryl, and I continue to blog, we'll be able to keep the human element in mind.
Joe Swick (left), Cheryl (center), Me (right)

It may sound silly, but we're saving the world (or at least Mormon Studies) through blogging. Every blogger wants to change and save the world through blogging. But I don't think that is a bad goal, especially in something as new and as fresh as Mormon Studies. This is a field that has gone through some rough changes and hard shifts. A lot of people get hurt, get frustrated, lose friends, lose faith (sometimes regain faith). All in all, it has had a hard impact on a lot of people. Worlds Without End offers a model that can help avoid a lot of the hurt and anger that has been felt in Mormon Studies. Most know that it is when you are not weighed down by negative emotions that you operate the best. The moment you become angry and upset and more worried about your own self-image is when your scholarship is going to get shoddy. That's when you get personal. That's when it stops becoming worthwhile. If we can maintain it, Worlds Without End can be a great example to Mormon Studies scholars. Even when the comment section has become heated, it has always been handled well and defused. I can think of one example where a particular scholar (a non-contributor) came to the comment section of one of my posts in an attempt to reconcile with another commenter who had expressed ill-feelings from a previous encounter. I don't know if they ever did fully reconcile outside of the comments, but I was almost more excited about this attempted reconciliation that had taken place in the comments of my post than I was about the post itself.

That's what I think Worlds Without End can accomplish or, at the very least, try to influence. And I hope it does. Thank you.

1. Quoted in Bradley, 2006: 37.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.: 32.

4. Ibid.: 36.

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