I received an email in early October asking me if I’d be interested in interviewing the author of a new book ‘Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis: A Simple Developmental Map, for the ‘A Thoughtful Faith Podcast.’
I said ‘yes’ largely because the name of the author ‘Thomas Wirthlin McConkie’ intrigued me. I admit to thinking churlishly, “What on earth could anyone with such a name tell anyone (least of all me) about a Mormon faith crisis?”
I was sent an advance copy of the book to read and I devoured it in a day. It’s a clean read, surprisingly untangled from the typical shots across the prow at the church or certain kinds of Mormon who just ‘don’t get it.’ Drawing on the work of positive adult developmental theorists, McConkie attends with fresh eyes to each stage of adult faith development positioning the transition from one period to the next as a breaking open and a dying to the former self – offering that:
“When we view faith crisis in our church through the lens of development we begin to see a very different picture. Not one of another great apostasy, but of a deeper and fuller redemption.”
The notion that adults develop was for me a definite epiphany. As someone who has had their head in the socio-cultural clouds for some time this one message shot through me like a cloud burst and the implications that poured from that realization crystalized into one pressing question:
If the adult brain is wired for change and growth why does the institutional and cultural church have us by the collar desperately trying to manhandle us into lock step conformity, rote learning, endless tedium and boredom that ricochets between mawkishness and meanness and all undergirded by the lip curling infuriating mantra of blind obedience?
McConkie does admit that “If our development falls out of step with the culture’s development…we will likely struggle significantly” and its that, that I was most determined to discuss because in many respects I was curious to know how he saw those struggles play out at church and what to do about them.
So I interviewed Thomas Wirthlin McConkie, duly harassed him about his name but found myself, despite my initial skepticism, drawn into a dialogue that was and continues to be a bit of a game changer. Setting the question of Mormon truth claims aside, if we accept that our world views shift and change over time as part of our natural pattern of adult development it frees us to expect and embrace those personal transformations as healthy and inevitable.
When it comes to the question of the everyday business of church and the huge range of complex problems that arise when one is embedded in the faith over time McConkie is more aspirational and abstract than concrete. He presents to Mormonism a Kandinsky when we’ve been used to looking at a Greg Olsen. He spent over 20 years outside of the church, digging in his heels when he was a kid against the heavy weight of the religious institutionalism that he found oppressive. He eventually opted for Zen Buddhism as a spiritually expansive practice that nourished his passion for mindfulness and meditation. If you have listened to our podcast or have been to one of his presentations it becomes obvious that his elegant, head turning eloquence doesn’t come from the language of his forebears and that to me is like a huge gulp of fresh mountain air.
Having returned to church some four years ago McConkie still sounds like a Buddhist. So if the pressing issue for you is whether or not you will be able to baptize your eight year old when there is a ‘no’ from your Bishop who didn’t like the way you answered a question in Gospel Doctrine; he’ll likely reply that if we really understood the patterns of adult development we might be more compassionate toward that leader. We’d give up our indignation, and in this desire to understand the Bishop we’d undergo a deep personal transformation, the kind that could potentially change the church because the spiritual embrace of another human is so filled with tenderness and grace that the walls between us would collapse. Or something like that.
And that has been the rub for me. It’s not combative nor is it definitive enough – it feels like surrender. My stock in trade has been critique and resistance. I’m helluva good at it and I don’t really want to give it up because it frankly feels pretty great to name and shame the system. But I’ll have to admit to being a bit conflict fatigued of late looking for the other part of the conversation – how to turn outrage into grace and transformation – and I have to concede that perhaps McConkie is on to something.
Outrage sooner or later exacts a spiritual tax. Yes it inflames, emboldens and builds up the capacity to offer an authentic ‘no’ when all around us calls for a regimented ‘yes.’ But to be honest, my spirit of late has felt calloused with ‘no’s’ and McConkie’s book; our powerful ongoing conversation; and his exquisite spiritual generosity has given me pause for thought as I struggle for a footing on this shifting terrain. I don’t know if I’ll ever really be anything other than an independent Mormon and I don’t really think that McConkie cares a fiddle-stick if people come or go. What he seems to care about is that we spiritually thrive, and if we could all do that at church wouldn’t that be the best kind of Mormon miracle and one so very needed today?
And right now Rumi’s words feel resonant.
Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass the world is too full to talk about.