Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Something New

Something New
I haven’t made much use of my blog in many years. I have only posted 2 things since 2014. Where have I been? Well…

Beginning at an Ending

My shelf finally broke in 2009.

In Mormon circles the mental “shelf” is a common analogy. Mormons are encouraged to put intellectual questions that challenge their faith on their “intellectual shelf”. The idea is that we can't know everything now, so we should expect a few unanswered questions, which is an eminently reasonable position. But we are also told to not let those unanswered questions challenge our faith. Instead, we should put them up on a shelf. At least for now. Then perhaps one day we can take them down and there will be answers. In the meantime, we can have faith.

This seems to work very well until our shelves grow so heavy that they eventually break. This can happen suddenly, spilling an entire lifetime of problems and impossibilities onto our unprepared laps. The result is often traumatic.

It was traumatic for me. It felt like pieces of my life, of my identity, of my core self, had been ripped away, leaving large holes that seemed impossible to ever fill.

Worse, I was one semester away from graduation at BYU. At the time, I was paying my way through graduate school by teaching courses in the Ancient Scripture department. My goal was to eventually teach religious studies at BYU full time. That was now obviously impossible. I couldn't bring myself to pretend to believe something that I do not.

I finished that last course, and did not teach religion at BYU again. The next semester I graduated from BYU, thankfully without needing to go through another of the annual “worthiness” interviews which spared me from being forced to choose between my integrity and receiving the degree I had worked for so many years to achieve.

I left Utah, and took a job near my wife’s family in New Mexico, and gave up on my hopes to teach religion at BYU one day. But this left another major hole in my life, because one of my central interests (religious studies) had no obvious outlet.

Despite my lack of belief, I continued to attend the local LDS church, where I taught Gospel Doctrine for several years, and was eventually made the Sunday School President. I informed my bishop at the time of my doubts, but he felt that God wanted me to serve anyway, so long as I could represent the Church when I taught, and not my own opinions. I hope that I did this well.

In 2012 I admitted to my wife that I no longer believed in the LDS church. This was a huge step, since it was something I could barely admit to myself. In January of 2013 I asked to be released from my calling as Sunday school president, and I had quit attending regularly. But this left me with another major hole in my life where the powerfully connected community of my Mormon congregation used to be.

The more involved you are with a given tradition, the more difficult it is to discover that it is not what it claims to be. I was all in, and so my loss of faith nearly destroyed me.

When I started this blog, the idea was that I would use it to share my thoughts about scriptural interpretation and ancient studies. But those thoughts were mostly directed at Mormon apologetics. With a broken shelf, what could I write? I have little desire to trade my Mormon apologetics for attacks on Mormonism.

So for the next few years this blog sat… mostly unused.  


Sometime near the middle or end of 2013 I visited the Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation that meets across the street from the Mormon church I used to attend. The UU service contains these lines: "As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life's journey, you are welcome here." The first time I heard those words I cried.

On December 19th, 2013, marriage equality finally came to New Mexico. The daughter of a member of our UU congregation is gay. She was married shortly after. The next Sunday, we all sat in the service, and they read from the Book of Joys and Sorrows". When our pastor read that she had finally been married to her long time partner that week...every person in the congregation stood up and cheered! We cheered! We clapped! We celebrated!

And I wept.

I felt what most Mormons call the feelings of the spirit more strongly in that moment than I had ever felt it in any Mormon context, and I knew that I had finally come home to a place where I was welcome, and where I could truly welcome others as they are.

I quickly found my new home and community here, and the holes left by my crashing shelf were filled.

Shortly thereafter I joined a Buddhist philosophy and meditation group that meets at the UU church. Buddhism has had a profound impact on my life for the better. These days, my wife claims that I am a more patient and a more loving person. I hope that she is correct.

In 2014 the UU church allowed me to begin teaching a comparative religions class as part of their adult religious education offerings, and they allowed me to design my own curriculum. At first, I borrowed heavily from the comparative religion class I had team taught with Stephen Ricks at BYU titled “Temples and Texts”. But the class quickly grew in scope far beyond this initial seed.

At first I recorded the audio from the classes for my own use in preparing better lectures on each subject. But soon, people began requesting the recordings for classes that they missed, or so that they could “attend” even though they didn't live nearby. So I began to share the recordings of my classes on YouTube.

In 2018 I began teaching a second class at the Church titled “Biblical Scholarship and Literacy”.

It feels as if the last major hole left by my crashing shelf is finally filled.

The Future of Amateur Scriptorians

These days I have no desire to write a blog about Mormonism. But I do want to write again.

I wish I could find a way to talk to people about why I love my new Church so much without constantly contrasting it with the LDS Church. But I'm not sure I know how to do that yet. Everything I see is still in contrast with my past. And the contrasts are large. Similarly, I still process the interesting things I discover about temples, texts, traditions, and religions in contrast to what I once believed. And Mormonism is an incredibly interesting topic of study from the perspective of anthropology and religious studies.

So while I have no desire to write primarily about Mormonism, I am sure that the topic will come up.

But if you are LDS, I would hope that you could stay. I will not be constantly attacking your church and your faith here. That is not what I want to write about. Part of the beauty of being a Universalist is that I don't feel like I need to convert my Mormon friends in order to save their souls. I think they can be “saved” where they are. If they are doing well where they are, then I don't need to convince them to believe exactly like me.

I want to write about the things I have been learning and teaching. I find great value in studying and understanding the world's many religious traditions. I believe that the story of where they came from is one of the most fascinating stories ever told. I am now free to explore that story, without any preconceived notions about what the conclusions must be. Richard Feynman supposedly said that “I would rather have questions that can’t be answered, than answers that can’t be questioned.” It has been a fascinating journey so far. And there is a lot more ground that we can cover.

Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life's journey, you are welcome here. I hope you will come exploring with me.


[1] When I initially left Mormonism, there was some motivation for me to try and explain my reasons for leaving, particularly because of the many false assumptions and mischaracterizations of the motivations of those who leave that are so common. At the time I began writing down some of my reasons. It quickly turned into a long catalog of all the things that were on my shelf. And after only getting about a quarter of the way through, it hit 60 pages! If anyone is interested in the reasons my shelf broke, they can read it, in its largely incomplete and unfinished state. But discussing reasons why I do not believe in the LDS Church will not be my focus in this blog.  

[2] This amazing quote is commonly attributed to Richard Feynman, but no firm source is currently known. Richard is known to have made very similar (if somewhat less pithy)  statements. For example: “You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live, not knowing, than to have answers which might be wrong.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MmpUWEW6Is

[3] Some future blog topics I have planned include:
* “Why Study Comparative Religion”
* “The Origins of Monotheism”
* “Mormonism is Where it’s At!” (a discussion of the unique contributions that a study of Mormonism can have in Comparative Religious Studies)
* “The Evolution of God, What the Theory of Evolution Says About the Potential Existence and Nature of God”
* “The End of Religious Anxiety”
* “Meaning and the Broken Myth”
* A series of posts on religion and homosexuality
* “The Philosophy of the Self”
* “Lucifer and Isaiah”
* “Cosmology and Genesis 1”
* “Biblical Inerrancy and Sufficiency”
* “Agency and Free Will”
* ...and there will be many more...