Last week I attended the Sunstone Symposium in Salt Lake City. It was a mixed bag for me. There were definitely some speakers who struck an inner chord for me, others who I didn’t connect with at all, and still others who I regretted having missed. However, when all is said and done, my favorite session was “Why I Stay.” I found so much that gave me relief, validation, hope, and motivation that I knew this post would be a review and extension of what was said there.
The common threads woven through each of the speakers were: a conviction of the gospel as a vehicle for spiritual growth, opportunity to offer service and positively influence the lives of others, understanding that the church is administered through imperfect leaders, and an acceptance of doubt as a companion to faith. And having listed them in this order, I will contrarily proceed to discuss them in reverse order.
Doubt as a companion to faith
Cherry Silver grew up in a household where she felt the intellectual and spiritual right to examine church doctrine and policy. Armand L. Mauss stated that doubt is the inevitable companion of deep thought, and that ignorance makes one vulnerable. And J. Bonner Ritchie asserted that making decisions on the margin feels right and good, and that demanding all or nothing dooms oneself to a life of frustration.
As a child growing up in the church, I never experienced a lot of doubt. I grew safe in the knowledge that this was a just world, and a keen sense of right and wrong. However, as I’ve become more aware of the history of the church, had ecclesiastical abuse directed at my family, and found issues in which church policy directly conflicts with some of my deepest convictions, I’ve had to find new ways in which to negotiate my personal spiritual journey. Yes, there are issues which I am unable to reconcile. Some concepts I have put on hold until I have greater understanding. Eternal polygyny and the degree to which evolution was utilized by the creators of this world are two such issues. As to the issue of women and the priesthood, I have decided to put this on hold until the church is ready for greater understanding. Yes, my world nowadays is no longer black and white, but I’ve learned to find comfort and wisdom in the nuanced patterns of gray.
We are lead by imperfect leaders
Silver talked about the need for a sense of pragmatism and irony in dealing with the church. Thus it is that when my good and well-meaning bishop said in a temple chapel meeting that the most important tasks we can accomplish here on this earth are to marry and have children, I had to bite my tongue and sing, “Where Can I Turn For Peace” under my breath. Frankly, I think he’s wrong. Our purpose is to gain a body, and knowledge and faith that will allow us to return to God. Granted, marriage and parenthood are excellent vehicles to help us obtain knowledge, faith and opportunities for Christian love and service, but they are not enough in and of themselves. That said, I do like my bishop, in a rather distantly fond manner, and concede that despite his mistakes, he is doing his best.
There was also a lot said about those in power seeking unrighteous dominion. Molly Bennion notes that even though she is sometimes disappointed by church policy and action, she is never disillusioned. I must say that I have been disillusioned in the past, as ecclesiastical abuse has been an issue my family has had to deal with over the past six years. I’ve been unsatisfied with the admonition for patience, and that all will be made alright in the end, since other’s unrighteous actions can have devastating consequences in the present, that can seriously affect how “the end” may turn out. It’s at times like these that I feel that the church needs to take a more proactive role in weeding out the occasional harmful leader. Sometimes having good leaders is a matter of fortune, but I can’t help but feel that it is the church’s responsibility at all levels to remove those who are unrighteously administering to faithful members.
However, as Ritchie states, we can never make the organization safe for the people; we can only make the people safe for the organization. And so even as I am impatient, I am trying to build a relationship with deity that is enhanced by the good I see and experience, and not as vulnerable to the awful.
Stay to offer service and a voice
Silver understands that the church has a structure within which we can interact and benefit one another. Ritchie stated that he doesn’t strive to be an alternative voice, merely an honest one; that we need a dynamic tension between liberal and conservative ideologies in our leaders; and that making decisions on the margins feels right. Mauss asserts that he is not a reformer, but that he does have talents to offer that can help to mitigate some of the systemic problems.
As I’ve struggled with the gospel, it has been a matter of intense relief to find communities where I can discuss my doubts with others who have struggled in the past or are currently struggling. I’m so grateful to those who make a conscious effort to further their relationship with deity in the face of mortal imperfections, and are willing to share and lift others in need. Discussion groups that meet in person or on-line have been invaluable in helping me navigate difficult stretches. There have been times when I’ve thought that surely it would be easier to throw in the towel, but have been buoyed up by finding others who continue to ride the edge of the herd, and found the strength to remain. Organizations such as Exponent II, Dialogue Journal, Sunstone Magazine. T&S, FMH and
Genesis Group have been invaluable in helping me realize that the church is not a homogeneous club, but a gathering of diverse people unto God.
Vehicle for spiritual growth
Mauss recognizes that, regardless of being in or out of the church, he would still keep gospel values. Silver find a fulfilling inner spiritual life, and recognize divine direction in the church. Shirley Paxman believes that the church answers the three questions of this mortality, and feels like an “indelible mormon.” And Bennion stays because of a belief in basic gospel principles.
I stay because the remembrance of past spiritual experience and the hope for future events keeps me moored. I have had experiences which are too sacred to share in this forum, but which convince me that I have heavenly parents who desire my return. And while the gospel does not answer all of my questions, it does so more completely than anything else I’ve encountered, and indeed encourages me to continue to seek answers.