We have reached a certain milestone in our history and it has been for us a cause to celebrate and reflect upon what we’ve done here, what we’ve learned, and a bit on who we have become in our nearly 7 year history. When we reached 500 posts a few years ago, we posed the following question for our current bloggers:
How has your decision to pursue academic research in religion or ancient history affected your faith?
This is an enduring question that we all face, and one that not all of our newer bloggers have had the occasion to address, so we have posed the question again. For those who answered this question the last time, we have asked that they reflect on: how things have changed in the intervening years? In addition, we have asked that our bloggers share a favorite or impactful post that they have written. (There is no significance to the order in which the replies below appear other than chronology of who gave them to me first.)
Answer: Since the 500th post at FPR, I have become more religious. However, I am less absolute. I have little interest in Truth claims. In many ways I have come closer to the pragmatism of Richard Rorty. My interests are in the human condition and not metaphysics. While my training is not in religion, the study of texts and theory has given me a greater appreciation for scripture. I have also come to realize that I really do not know much of anything. Of couse, I also do not think that anyone else does either.
Answer: A few years into the pursuit of academic training (at about age 27) I remember thinking to myself, “I have left the Garden, and there is no way back to it. I kind of wish I could go back. Where do I go now? How do I communicate this sense of loss and being lost? Who is going to listen? Whom can I trust?” This crisis happened to coincide with an EQP calling at church and our first child’s arrival. It was also an election year with a visible LDS candidate. And then there was Prop. 8. It was a rough time.
But I resolved not to turn away from the church or the people in it even though I am naturally somewhat introverted and buttoned up about my own spiritual life. I talked to a lot of people. I worked out my faith crises privately in my own thoughts and meditations (I don’t really do prayer so well but I meditate and it works for me like prayer seems to do for others) and publicly through regularly teaching EQ lessons and the occasional GD lesson. Some were pretty rocky.
But I began to gain the confidence to claim beliefs that were important to my personal faith and to peacefully leave behind others that no longer offered nourishment. During this process I got a new calling as an Institute teacher. I loved it. I felt like I was able to “teach with the Spirit,” but not like I thought that meant in previous stages of my life. It was as though the more I embraced uncertainty while expressing my own faith and hopes and the more I acknowledged the faith and hopes of my students (and theirs were sometimes rather different than my own), the more spiritually connected I felt to my students.
So for me, academic training has more or less forced me to become extroverted in my spiritual life and with my evolving testimony, since my own introverted bent and the introverting effect academia has on me threatened to smother my faith. In short, when I engage my spirit thrives, when I disengage my faith ebbs. I can’t believe all by myself.
Answer: During my most recent temple recommend interview, a member of the Stake Presidency asked me how my faith was doing, as he knows that I study religion. I answered, “It has been stripped down to its bedrock elements and rebuilt.” Graduate studies in religion, and especially teaching World Religions, have shifted my faith from very literal and personal, if flexible, to what could be best described as religious humanism. I entered grad school prepared to harmonize the LDS and academic views of the history of the Bible—I even have the Word document. But very quickly I felt that the academic explanations could explain the LDS position far more satisfactorily than the reverse.
I still very much believe in spirituality and the value of religion. I personally think that though academic inquiry can dismantle virtually all denominational claims, there are grounds for and benefits to spirituality and the religious life. I take a pragmatic approach to religion—I think we should respect all belief systems, but also demand ethical accountability, measure religion by the demonstrable benefit or harm it produces in lives. I am grateful that Mormonism is my faith language, but also use all the tools I have gained through graduate studies to put that faith in the perspective of the human experience, and learn what I can from other world views. I love the teaching by Joseph Smith, Brigham Young and others that if anything is good or true, we can claim it as part of our tradition.
Answer: My graduate training has taught me to be a close reader of all texts, questioning and deconstructing everything along the way. For someone who went into biblical studies precisely to acquire the “background information” that (I was just sure) would prove what I already knew (being an “RM” I naturally knew all things), this new method of inquiry created for me nothing short of a spiritual identity crisis. Though I don’t often experience the divine in any sort of supernatural way, I can honestly say that it was to a large extent an inspired leader in the small ward that we moved into that helped preserve my Mormon identity. Through countless hours of discussion with people that I will forever be grateful to (not least of which is my spouse), I was slowly able to start putting what was left of the pieces back together (a process that continues today, and I suspect, will forever continue). The belief (I now call it my “worldview” of course) that emerged differed considerably from that of my pre-graduate training days, particularly in the sense that I have come to appreciate and even love the value of questions. For me, a life of faith that focuses on questions and the pursuit of different kinds of answers certainly can be a relentless uphill journey filled with dissonance and contradiction, nevertheless, it is also filled with rich rewards along the way, both academic and spiritual, that make me grateful that I (somewhat unknowingly) decided to (as TT has described it) journey outside of Eden.
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Answer: My faith trajectory after beginning in earnest my study of ancient religion has been, I think, relatively typical. Raised with conservative ideas, gradually coming to accept theories that I had been warned about by uninformed but well-intentioned ecclesiastical leaders, coming to deal with the feeling of having been cut adrift on horizonless waters, gradually finding a harbor in a receptive and faithful community with similarly-experienced folks. Following the example of earlier navigators, some of whom write for FPR, I have found great satisfaction in embracing the many virtues of my tradition, and in seeking to help those sending out distress signals. I cherish many of the aspects of faith that I had written off, or thought I understood innately, when I was younger, especially the hope of salvation. The great surprise in all of this: I find myself much happier now, or at least much more at peace with myself, than I ever was before grad school.
Answer: I maintain much of the same sentiment I expressed in our celebration
of 500 posts, although I lament how little I’ve contributed to FPR
since then. Personally speaking, I’ve become less concerned with the
tension that arises between faith and (academic) understanding. I’ve
come to accept that a degree of dissonance is irresolvable, and even
healthy. I’ve also come to accept that other people in the Church may
not want this tension.
For me, this has given way to several things. For one, I’m enjoying my
service in the Church more than I have in a long time; and not because
I have a calling that allows me engage adults in thoughtful
discussion. I feel like I can focus more on the people I interact
with, and less on trying to supress my anxiety that arises when others
make comments that I might disagree with. This has also led me to
worry less about what others in the Church think about my ideas. I
feel like I’m often able to speak my mind and be less emotionally
investment in the outcome. I’ve come to accept that this may mean that
I’ll never have a leadership position in the Church. I’ve also come to
believe that there is room in the Church for all kinds, and that the
Church is just as much mine as it is the EQP’s (unless asked to
In short, I feel like I’ve found more of a voice, but this voice is
one that wants to say fewer things (in greaterer depth). Hopefully
2012 is the year I use this voice more often on FPR.
Bored In Vernal
Answer: I’m a newbie at FPR, but I’ve been blogging for about 5 years. Since that time, my faith has become more robust. If I couldn’t discuss the harder issues, I don’t know what I’d do with myself, probably implode. In person, I am small, and I have a soft, small voice. Being female in a patriarchal world, I never feel as though I am heard. Blogging has given me the voice I crave. Divorced from my physical reality, I’m evaluated on my thoughts and what I write. I like this. I don’t mind controversy, I love hashing out issues with anyone who will engage. Paradoxically, I think I’ve become more patient with people due to my interactions with them on the internet. (This is something that being in a ward is supposed to do, but never worked for me.) I’ve gained a great appreciation for the vital nature of Mormonism and the “living” aspect of our doctrine. I look forward to another 1,000 posts!
Answer: I think that my narrative the last time I answered this question about attempting to blur the line between Eden and the “lone and dreary wilderness” still largely resonates with my current experience. One of the things that I expressed then was a kind of recognition that these two spaces aren’t as far apart as one might think. At the same time, I have come to see that the ability to stand across certain boundaries has afforded me a profound sense of agency (even if it is only a sense). I sense the agency to think, to question, and to speak, along with the responsibilities that attend that agency. I have taken problems more seriously, not in their existential seriousness, but in terms of affording them time to simmer in my mind, to return to them over time, and to bring to bear new approaches and ideas on them. This is an incredible luxury, and that sense of agency that “scholars” have to shape the conversation, rather than simply reproduce it, is a great benefit. But I am left wondering: in what way does the social position that I occupy provide the very grounds of my sense of agency? I am frightened and humbled by the potential answer, both for what it entails in terms of the burden of responsibility, as well as whose voices are excluded.
Answer: I’m more at peace now with religious and spiritual things than I think I’ve ever been. Sure, graduate study introduced many and very serious questions. But it also allowed me to learn how to deal with them – sometimes answering them and sometimes simply waiting to see what might eventually come out of them, for there are many questions whose answers are lived rather than simply learned.
I think one of the major answers I’m living out now is the question of how church participation fits into my relationship with God. While I maintain it, and usually value it, it is clearly no longer the most immediate point of contact. And sometimes I’m surprised at how comfortable I am with that. It would appear, however, that when the Great Baker set out to make his bread, he allowed many venues for participation in the mystery of the leaven. The dough I’m usually working with isn’t the stuff of traditional RS recipes but considering who it is that kneads us, I think that when we’re ready to come out of the oven we will be as fine a batch as any.
Answer: Of course this is a really difficult question to try to answer, as if I could self-psychoanalyze …. I first noticed tensions between my university studies and my faith as an undergrad. Initially I think I dealt with it by maintaining a core of truth, primarily early Mormonism up to 1844, while somehow attributing any challenges or failings to the rest of LDS church history and development. This is frightening to recall. Later I began to see tensions within the core itself, such as whether ancient restoration scripture and biblical scholarship can go together. At the same time that I seriously began to stop compartmentalizing (maybe), the rug of quote-unquote objective scholarship was being pulled out from under me, and relativism, which I try to resist but confess some inclination towards, has been no deus ex machina. Presently I am a living paradox of multiple opinions. All this suppositious child can do now is sit tight for a few decades, while attempting to avoid the flatterers.
Answer: Since I’m no longer pursuing a career as a Biblicist, it is difficult
to consider what effect my studies have on my spirituality today.
I’ve got a very flexible faith, but I’m not sure if I acquired that
because of my studies, or if I pursued my studies because of it. What
I can say is that I have come to a place where most argumentation
regarding the Bible, theology, history, and other religious topics
seems to me like the blind men groping the elephant. It would be sad
and trivial, but frankly most people aren’t even trying that hard.
So, I respect the efforts of religious studies, biblical, and history
academics, even while being fairly convinced of their limited insight.
Even limited insight is better than none at all.