Wednesday, June 21, 2006

We've moved!

Check out our new home at

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

God's Ways Are Not Man's Ways

This is funny.

My fiance shared his favorite response with me (he got it from a friend) to being told that favorite of all favorite patronizing statements: "God's ways are not man's ways."

The Response: "Man's ways are not God's ways."

Brilliant, isn't it?

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Questioning the Spirituality of Others

It’s interesting to me how often we Mormons respond to religious questions by impugning the questioner’s spiritual commitment, testimony, or faith instead of, or in addition to, addressing the question itself. Unfortunately, we tend to assume that people who don’t have questions, issues, or doubts are somehow more spiritually committed than those who do. There are at least two reasons I think this assumption is problematic.

First, life has a way of breaking down the dichotomies between believers and questioners, between the faithful and the doubters. As surely as every human being suffers physical and emotional pain, every Mormon, every Christian, every believer faces religious adversity. It’s highly unlikely that anyone could long endure as a member of this church without encountering some personal challenge, whether in Mormon history, in the tensions between religion and science, in doctrine, in church policy, in the unkindness or unscrupulous behavior of other members, in the pain of unfulfilled priesthood blessings, or in the loneliness that accompanies various borderline statuses: singleness, homosexuality, infertility, divorce, physical or mental illness, race or class marginality.

Maybe another way to put this is that one of the purposes of life is to learn face our trials, including our religious and our intellectual trials, with courage, integrity, and faith. When we impugn questioners’ motives, we make that vital work we all have to do harder. We drive people into circumspection about whatever their religious adversity is, and we contribute to the resulting fissure that then separates adversity from the very personal and community religious strength that questioners and sufferers—which is to say, all of us—most need.

The more fundamental problem with maligning others’ spirituality, though, is the very basic fact that we never know their hearts. We do not know, we cannot know, it is not for us to know, what hours they have spent on their knees, what years-long wrestles they have had with God, what of their lives they have given up to seeking. But we cannot assume that they haven’t. I’m persuaded from my reading of the New Testament that how we treat each other is far more important to God than the positions we come to on even the issues that matter a great deal to me personally, such as feminism. After nearly half a life of church membership (thirty-four years and counting), I’m a little weary of the lack of charity we grant each other, on both sides of all manner of political and doctrinal divides. I’m tired of the rush to impute evil motives. Everything about our doctrine and scriptures and everything about our own mortal experience teaches us, over and over, that we live in a world of ambiguity, that our knowledge even of the most profound religious truths is partial, that even our most cherished spiritual gifts will one day pass away in the knowledge to come. If there is anything this life seems at pains to teach us, it is how little we know. All of us see through a glass darkly, and perhaps our glasses are never so dark as when we gaze at the spiritual lives of our brothers and sisters. Given this, how can we assume that others who have not had exactly the spiritual experiences we have, or who have not come to the conclusions we have based on their own spiritual experiences, are therefore spiritually deficient?

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Eve and the Pain of Childbirth

Artemis's pain post has got me wondering. Eve's curse is famously (at least, depending on how one parses it) twofold: "in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee" (Genesis 3:16). Eve is punished both with painful parturition and with marital subordination.

Granted, we've softened the language of that second mandate somewhat. But, I wonder, by what hermeneutical criterion have we rejected the first section entirely while adopting the second, even in modified form? Why do Church leaders not issue statements reminding women that God has always intended for childbirth to be painful, and therefore to avoid epidurals (or anything else that might unnecessarily ease the process)? If, on the other hand, we contend that the first statement to Eve is nothing more than a description, on what basis can we maintain that the second is meant prescriptively?

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Friday, June 16, 2006

The Church and Pedagogical Uniquities

I’ve had quite a few lessons at church lately that have made me frustrated. Not because I didn’t like the topics or because the class got out of hand—but because I was frustrated with the pedagogical choices made by the instructor. While I am aware that I need to engage in a process of repentance and growth, so that I can learn how to listen and participate in lessons without getting frustrated, I wanted to talk about some thoughts I’ve had about church pedagogy that have emerged based on pondering my frustrations in church classes.

I’ve been pondering the following questions. What are the church’s pedagogical goals when it comes to church classes? (Clarification: in this post I’m concerned primarily with adult church classes rather than seminary, Primary, missionary work, etc.) How do the church’s pedagogical goals differ from those in other educational settings? (I’ll primarily be considering the setting of academia, since it’s the educational setting I’m most familiar with.) And, what can we learn from these differences? My reasons for asking these questions are because I think that some of the problems we run into when it comes to problems with (or apprehensions about) teaching at church comes from thinking we need to make church teaching experiences too similar to our academic ones.

Probably the clearest explanation of the church’s guidelines when it comes to pedagogy and teaching are contained in the first chapter of Teaching, No Greater Call: A Resource Guide for Gospel Teaching. The manual outlines five important guidelines for teaching the gospel:

1. We are commanded—it is something on which we have no choice; there are no alternative courses open to us—we are commanded to teach the principles of the gospel.

2. We are to teach the principles of the gospel as they are found in the standard works of the Church.

3. We are to teach by the power of the Holy Ghost.

4. We are to apply the gospel principles taught to the needs and circumstances of our hearers.

5. We must testify that what we teach is true.

I’m not really going to discuss topic #1 because it’s basically just a statement that we need to teach the gospel (i.e. teaching is important). Turning to the other guidelines, I think we can find pedagogical goals in other settings comparable with guidelines #2 and #4. Guideline #2 is what we are supposed to teach, and all disciplines have certain requirements and expectations about teaching materials. Guideline #4 relates to issues of audience and appropriateness—whatever pedagogical setting you’re in, you’re going to want to adjust what you’re teaching based on who is in your class. I think some of the main differences when it comes to church teaching emerge as we consider guidelines #3 and #5. Academic disciplines generally do not require us to either teach by the spirit or to bear testimony about our classroom material.

So, what does it mean to teach with the spirit? How does a spirit-filled classroom differ from a more traditional academic classroom? What kinds of things do we see in a classroom where the instructor is trying to bring the spirit that we wouldn’t see in a more traditional educational setting? While I think there are a variety of ways to teach with the spirit and invite the spirit into classes at church, we generally talk about the spirit in terms of "feeling." And I think that oftentimes we (myself included) don’t recognize the "feeling" that we need to have in church classes. Sometimes we stray to far towards the rational/academic because that is what we are used to (I am reminded here of the innumerable Sunday School lessons where there was an abstract debate about matters such as which prophets in the Old Testament had which priesthood keys). Sometimes I think in order to avoid this rational extreme, we are tempted to associate strong emotion with spiritual "feeling" (I am reminded here of the innumerable Young Women’s and Relief Society lessons where all we heard were stories about incredible miracles or horrible suffering). (Incidentally, my next post is going to be on the association of spiritual "feeling" with emotionality and how that connects to spirituality and gender in church settings.) I think that understanding the nature of spiritual "feeling" and how that differs from "feelings" in other kinds of classroom environments will enable us to think more fully about and improve upon our church teaching and learning experiences.

Since the church teaches that bearing testimony is one of the best ways to bring the spirit into a meeting, linked with this is the issue of bearing testimony. I’m reluctant to make a lot of comments about the role of testimony in church classes because of my own peculiar tendencies (I’m an academic who is a lot more interesting in asking questions such as "what do we mean when we use the word 'truth'?"). So, instead I’ll just ask a few questions. How does bearing testimony cause church classrooms to function differently than other kinds of classrooms, and what can we learn from this?

One additional place I notice differences when it comes to church teaching revolves around the issue of authority. Generally, when you are in other educational settings, the teacher is the authority on a particular subject and the students come to class to learn from the teacher’s authoritative knowledge. In church, teachers are called from the congregation, and they do not have to go through a course of study qualifying them to teach. I think the disjunct between church teaching and academic teaching causes a lot of apprehension when it comes to teaching callings. I know many people who don’t want to teach lessons because of their lack of knowledge on a subject—they are convinced that someone with more knowledge would be the better qualified teacher. I think this apprehension makes a lot of sense—this that is the educational model that we are used to. However, if we consider how this is not necessarily the model we should be using in church settings, we can both relieve some anxiety as well as create a better model for church classroom settings. So, what does that better model look like? While I think there are a number of ways for the teacher to function as the authority figure in the class without being the “authoritative knowledge” on the subject at hand, my current favorite model is to think about the teacher as a facilitator. The teacher is there to help things run smoothly, get people talking, integrate ideas, etc. Are there any other models that others like as well or better? Any additional thoughts about pedagogy and the church?

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Being Single and Adult

I've been a legal adult for more than a decade now. However, as a single woman without children, in a church context I often feel relegated to a kind of pre-adult status. Don't get me wrong: I'm perfectly willing to concede that there are quite likely unique life lessons and experiences involved in marriage and parenting that can't be gained elsewhere, and I'm not out to downplay the value of those things. Nonetheless, I'd like to find a way to talk about adulthood which didn't assume that it necessarily included those elements.

The thing is, I don't see myself as being in some preparatory, not-yet-real phase of life where I'm simply passing the time while awaiting the possible arrival of a husband and children. Yes, I'd like for those things to happen. But I'm living a real life right now. I have challenges and problems and things I'm learning and opportunities and stresses. And it stings to hear comments about those who don't yet know what life is about because they aren't married or don't have children. Likewise, I have no desire to be an object of pity. The truth is that my life is actually pretty good. I study something I love. I have some amazing friends (as well as a bunch of lively if not always completely sane siblings). Sure, there are things that are awfully hard at times, but that seems to be a fairly universal aspect of the human condition.

I'm currently watching several of my single friends struggle to stay active, ones who have far fewer doctrinal difficulties with the church than I do. I wonder what would make it easier. I've long been a bit jealous of the Catholic view that adults can follow a variety of legitimate spiritual paths, marriage being only one of them. As I said, I'm open to the possibility that some things can only be learned through marriage and raising a family. But I also think I've learned important things from my own life circumstances, perhaps things I wouldn't have learned if my life had gone in another direction.

Talks to singles tend to go along these lines: "Marriage and children are the greatest of all blessings, and we have great compassion for your difficult state. Try not to feel too bad, though, because God will fix it all in the next life." And while I know it's well-meant, I'm rather tired of hearing about singleness as some kind of tragic affliction to be endured and single adults (women in particular) as victims in need of sympathy. (In many ways I think single men have it even worse, as they are more likely to be blamed than to be pitied.) It's difficult to remain in an organization that sometimes seems to see your very existence as a kind of problem in need of explanation. I would far rather hear something like, "You have a unique and valuable perspective on life, and we hope you'll bring it to the table." As much as anything, I simply want to feel that I too have something to contribute.

I honestly don't mind that the church places a lot of emphasis on families and parenting; I think they're tremendously important. But ultimately I think our focus should be on becoming better Christians, in whatever life situations we might find ourselves. And in that endeavor, I don't think that any particular group of people can claim a privileged position or inherently greater insight; surely we all have much to learn from each other.

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Sunday, June 11, 2006

A Physics Parable

In physics, one speaks of two kinds of balance, or equilibrium. Unstable equilibrium describes a system that is in balance, but that will become unbalanced at the slightest outside influence. Think of trying to balance a pencil on its point: it’s possible to do in theory, but in practice it will fall over every time you try. Stable equilibrium describes a system that is in balance and that will seek the same equilibrium, even if outside influences temporarily unbalance it. Think of a marble resting in the bottom of a bowl: you can nudge it, flick it or bump it to make it leave that position, but it will eventually roll back to the bottom of the bowl.

In my experience, Mormons (and perhaps especially Mormon women) have a habit of reducing the Gospel to an infinitely long to-do list. Pray, read your scriptures, fast, go to church, do your visiting/home teaching, magnify your calling, go to the temple, do your genealogy, pay your tithing, pay your fast offering, bear your testimony, hold Family Home Evening, etc., etc. No one could possibly do all of these things, so success at one is always mitigated by imperfection in others. (Worse, success in any one area may be trumped by the unrealized possibility of a higher degree of success. Sure, you packed home lunches for your kids, but did you bake the bread? Hmm?)

So I was sitting one day in Relief Society, apparently thinking about physics instead of paying attention to the lesson, when I had a thought: “Be a marble.” In other words, don’t let all the little things I’m “supposed” to be doing pull me off balance; rather, see each of them as tending towards the same center of peace and stability, and seek that center by any path.

I had seen each of the little rules of the Gospel pulling me in a separate direction, throwing me off balance unless I happened to do them all perfectly at once. I realized, instead, that they were all pointing towards the greatest commandments of loving God and loving my neighbor. If I did my visiting teaching, but didn’t go on the last temple trip, I didn’t need to beat myself up for it because I had still found a way to offer service. If I went to church on Sunday but I didn’t read my scriptures all week, I had still tried to become closer to God. Each facet of the Gospel wasn’t in competition with every other one. Instead, all the commandments were working together to bring about the same end, and trying faithfully to keep any one of them would help me to follow all of them.

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Universal Salvific Will of God

In 1 Timothy 2:4, God is described as one "who will have men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth." The assertion that God has a universal salvific will, that he desires the salvation of every person, poses problems for any theological claim that only a certain group of people (e.g. Christians) are eligible for salvation. Augustine, who saw the majority of humanity as a "lump of sin" headed for perdition, resolved the dilemma by re-interpreting the scripture to mean that God wants salvation not for all people, but for all whom he has predestined. In the 20th century, by contrast, many have taken this verse quite seriously and re-thought the exclusive claims of Christianity in its light.

Christian theologians commonly speak of three ways of approaching religious diversity:

1. Exclusivism. Christianity is the one and only way, and without explicit knowledge of and acceptance of Christ, no one can be saved. This of course leaves open the question of what will happen to all those who never had a chance to accept Christ. One proposal (put forth by George Lindbeck) is that everyone will encounter Christ at the time of death and thus have the chance to make a decision. Many in the exclusivist camp simply remain agnostic on the matter, trusting that God's justice will sort things out.

2. Inclusivism. It is only through the grace of Christ that one is saved, but one can be saved by this grace without labeling it as such. Karl Rahner's theory of the "anonymous Christian" is the most well-known articulation of this approach. According to Rahner, God's grace is universally offered and all people have the real opportunity to respond to it in their lives, regardless of their relationship to explicit Christianity. However, whether or not it is recognized as "Christian," this grace is the grace of Christ.

3. Pluralism. Christ is one of many legitimate ways to salvation. Paul Knitter, one of the major advocates of this approach, views the exclusivist-sounding claims in the New Testament as "love-language." When lovers say, "you are the only one for me," they are not making metaphysical assertions but are expressing love and commitment in the context of a relationship, and the comments of the early Christians about Christ should be read in a similar way. It is a mistake, says Knitter, to assume that truly necessarily implies only; an unequivocal statement that Christ is truly saving does not rule out the possibility of others who are also truly saving.

Mormons, I would say, have some hard-core exclusivist elements, asserting that not only explicit faith in Christ is required, but also the ordinances of a particular religious institution. The LDS answer to reconciling this with the universal salvific will of God is, of course, to extend the opportunity for accepting the gospel to the next life and to perform vicarious ordinance work. Nonetheless, I think there are insights from both the inclusivist and pluralist camps which are not incompatible with LDS thought.

An aspect of Rahner's theology which I find tremendously appealing is his vision of a world in which grace is everywhere. He notes that far too often, the radical gratuity of grace, the sheer wonder and un-earnedness of it, have been interpreted to mean that grace must be scarce, rare, in short supply. But God's love, he points out, is no less an awe-inspiring free gift for being universally offered. The world therefore isn't split into God's favorites who get offered grace, "the elect," and everyone else. Grace in Rahner's view is actually constitutive of what it is to be human; in other words, we can only understand who we are in light of God's love.

In a similar vein, the book of Alma tells us that "God is mindful of all every people, whatsoever land they may be in" (Alma 26:37) and that "the Lord doth grant unto all nations, of their own tongue, to teach his word." (Alma 28:8) According to Moroni, "the Spirit of Christ is given to every man, that he may know good from evil." (Moroni 7:16) Clearly God's communication and activity in the world are by no means limited to the church. I also see some possible continuity between the notion of "anonymous Christianity" and 3 Nephi 9:20, which explains that "the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not."

Rahner's approach has been critiqued for undermining the importance of missionary work— what's the use of proclaiming the gospel if people can accept it anonymously? Interestingly, although I've rarely heard it mentioned, I think this same concern could well be raised in the context of LDS theology. Why worry about baptizing people in this life when we can always do it after they're dead? I think the LDS answer would be similar to Rahner's: if you understand the purpose of Christianity solely in terms of a "get out of hell free" card, you've missed the point. You can be saved without it, but explicit knowledge of the gospel in this life nonetheless has real value.

I also think the pluralists are right to remind us that we have much to learn from those of other faiths, that it's a mistake to go into a conversation assuming that we have all the answers. Although the LDS view of other faiths has gotten more positive over the years (you hear less about "leave your apostate faith and join ours" and more about "let us add to the truth you already possess"), my impression is that the Mormon viewpoint still tends to be that we have the whole truth, and therefore nothing to learn from anyone else. Other religions are at worst misguided, and at best less-developed or incomplete versions of us. Yet given the premise that God is communicating to all people, I wonder if even from the standpoint of LDS theology, any and all dialogue between Mormons and those of other faiths necessarily has to be one-sided. Joseph Smith himself stated that Mormonism "is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 313.)

I personally don't know where I'd place myself on the exclusivist-inclusivist-pluralist continuum. I've wrestled for years with issues related to pluralism without having come to much of a conclusion. I know so many devoted, spiritual people in other religious traditions who are so clearly following God and enriching the world in the context of their faith that I have a hard time believing that everyone is meant to be Mormon. On the other hand, I'm uneasy with glib assertions that all roads lead to God, or all religions are essentially the same--claims which I don't think hold up under critical scrutiny. For the moment, although I'm murky about the details of how it all gets worked out, I hold to belief in a God who, as Nephi tells us, invites "all to come unto him and partake of his goodness" (2 Nephi 26:33) and who also speaks to humans "according to their language, unto their understanding." (2 Nephi 31:3)

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Friday, June 02, 2006

Dona Nobis Pacem (some late Memorial Day thoughts)

Beat! beat! drums! -- blow! bugles! blow! / Through the windows -- through doors -- burst like a ruthless force... (Walt Whitman, "Beat! Beat! Drums!"; Dona Nobis Pacem, second movement)

In 1937, Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote Dona Nobis Pacem. The piece emerged from his feelings on the rising tide of Fascism and Naziism in Europe in the late 1930's as well as his experiences as an ambulance driver and artillery officer in the First World War. The title of the piece means "grant us peace," and it is a compelling musical journey that borrows texts from the Bible, Walt Whitman ("Beat! Beat! Drums!", "Reconciliation," and "A Dirge for Two Veterans") and John Bright's famous "Angel of Death" speech, and which runs the gamut of musical colors and emotions--from the frenetic representation of war in the second movement to the weary calm of the third movement to the somber death march of the fourth movement to the despair and emptiness of the fifth movement and to the eventual joy and hope of the final, sixth movement.

For my enemy is dead--a man divine as myself is dead... (Walt Whitman, "Reconciliation"; Dona Nobis Pacem, third movement)

This past Memorial Day weekend, my choir went to New York and performed Vaughan Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem in Carnegie Hall. It was one of the most moving musical experiences (for that matter, one of the most moving experiences, musical or otherwise) in my life. Many of us had grown to love the piece when we sang it last year during our regular concert season, and we grew to love it all over again. The timing, both this year and last, has seemed so pertinent, and though I must remind myself that the events of last few years are not unique in the history of the world, the piece has really resonated with where I've been both politically and spiritually. Before we went onto the stage at Carnegie, our conductor related how earlier in the day he had gone to ground zero at the World Trade Center site, and afterwards had stopped by the chapel only a few blocks away where many of the families went after the disaster on September 11th. While there, he had run into two members of our choir, one of whom had reflected, "this is why we are performing this piece." This statement struck a chord with the entire choir, and after spending time conversing with many of the people who performed this past weekend, I know that most of us were not standing on that stage thinking about our cut-offs and our consonants. Instead, on our mind was the thought, "I must communicate to this audience the beautiful message of peace contained within this musical work."

...Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is not the voice of the daughters of my people recovered? (Jeremiah 8:22; Dona Nobis Pacem, fifth movement)

I grow so tired of of what we, as human beings, do to one another in the name of justice, God, patriotism, etc. Though I am not a pacifist and I honor the courage of those in the armed forces, the neverending tide of fighting and the neverending justifications for fighting saddens me immensely. I often visit the empty despair of the fifth movement, taken from the 8th chapter of Jeremiah, and wonder when all the horrible death and war that is part of mortality will end. But sometimes, I remember the wonderful promises of the Savior's atonement, which are reflected in the final movement of Dona Nobis Pacem: that eventually war will end, and "nation shall not lift up a sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore" (Micah 4:3; Dona Nobis Pacem, sixth movement). When I was singing this past weekend, I felt a small portion of that joy and hope as we sang the final movement. My heart rejoiced in the belief that one day all the current war and death and destruction will come to an end, and that we will truly recognize the divinity of our both our sisters and our enemies.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:14; Dona nobis pacem, sixth movement)

Dona nobis pacem. Grant us peace.

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New ZD Member

We're thrilled to announce that Katya is joining us as a blogger at Zelophehad's Daughters. She has this to say about herself:

"I'm working on a Master's degree in Library Science, my alias comes from taking Russian classes as an undergrad, a Midwestern winter has convinced me to take up knitting, and Melyngoch and I have been friends since about halfway through her first semester at BYU, when she figured out that I was more than "nice" and I figured out that she was more than an angry little freshman."


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