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Sunstone 2012 Day 2: Taking Back Testimonies

August 1, 2012


(I was pretty close to naming this post Taking Back Sunday, but I resisted — mainly because I’ve never listened to them and don’t want to give the wrong impression.)

…So, as you might have suspected from my last post (and the first in this series on my adventures at Sunstone 2012), my original intention was to recap each day that I attended Sunstone at the end of that day…unfortunately, as you can see by the fact that I haven’t had any posts between then and now, my plan didn’t work out.

I have a LOT of post ideas swirling through my head about Sunstone (including posts for Wheat & Tares and even for Main Street Plaza)…the issue isn’t writer’s block, but rather that paradoxically, having all these ideas in my head actually paralyzes me from writing any of them! #FirstWorldProblems, indeed.

So, I’m going to take things one step at a time…first, I’ll write the day recap series, and then I’ll start writing more fully fledged articles about different things I learned from particular speakers.

On the second day of Sunstone (or the first day of formal sessions), I actually skipped the first two sessions…the first session I went to was My Agnostic Testimony: Why Leaving the Church was Right for Me, by Hilary Brown (of whom you may be aware often comments at Feminist Mormon Housewives.)

Here was that session’s abstract:

In spring 2008, I made a decision that would change my life forever, alienate my family, cause me to lose friends, and break my heart. In spite of all this, I am absolutely certain I made the right decision when I finally decided to give up my belief in the LDS Church and its teachings.

The first question I’m typically asked by Mormons who discover I no longer believe is, “Why did you leave?” I’ve never found an answer that satisfied most true-believing Mormons. The second question is, “Did someone offend you?’ Well, yes. Human beings do offensive things, and humans are sometimes offended. But that is not remotely why I left.

Hilary’s story was a story of pain, a story I have heard and read in some way or another far more often than I would have liked to…(unfortunately, and I’m going to feel really bad admitting this, but I didn’t take any notes from the session, so beyond eating disorder issues that led to the BYU Idaho administration barring her from the student housing for being disruptive, and a desire to be the proof that one can be liberal/progressive while believing in the church [that didn’t mesh so much with the church’s Prop 8 efforts, I don’t remember so much about the basics of her story).

What I did find interesting was a few things that came up in the questions part of the session.

Why an Agnostic Testimony?

The name of the sessions (and its subtitle) seemed to imply this sense that agnostics could get revelation from God that would directly state that the church was not true. In my experience, however, being an agnostic/atheist is more easily characterized by a lack of divine revelation all around, however. This is actually a point that I get annoyed because some believers take advantage of it — I believe my agnostic atheism is an extremely humble position, but I have heard people take this intellectual humility as a sign of the position’s weakness. How, after all, can someone who doesn’t KNOW (or claim to know) that God doesn’t exist ever compete with someone who KNOWS God *does* exist?

Others in the audience must have had at least similar thoughts as me, because there was a question about what specifically made an agnostic testimony. Hilary’s answer (again, loosely summarized) was that her leaving the church produced the kind of change in her that most often is associated with a testimony — internal joy on the one hand, but a wish to do good and serve selflessly on the other hand.

I find this intriguing. I definitely can identify with labeling these things as rare fruits of testimony, but fruits of testimony indeed. That doesn’t mean I think these are unique to any religious viewpoint, but I would say that it’s a state that represents a dramatic change. I think that many folks never get to that state — especially not most religious folks (although I’m uncertain as to say whether most folks even are religious, despite their nominal identification as such). I don’t think many religious folks truly have the inside-out transformation of personality that reorients them to love and service. That doesn’t mean that I don’t think that most folks don’t do good, but I think that for many people, it’s not in their nature. They are nice (usually), and they practice a lot at being nice, but niceness has its limits and is not the same thing.

Getting back to the session…at some point, Kaimi Wenger went up to point out that people like Hilary should reclaim the term testimony. His point (again, loosely paraphrased) was that our testimony meetings should be places for people like Hilary to be validated for their stories, mourned along side for their pains. Of course, the church assuredly isn’t at that point…Hilary couldn’t go on any given fast and testimony Sunday and present this story.

…but just as well, the problem goes the other way. The real problem the church has here is that it has effectively taught folks that the church isn’t big enough for them. The church isn’t big enough for you if you’re gay. The church isn’t big enough for you if you have liberal politics. The church isn’t big enough for you if you doubt.

The fact that Hilary’s agnostic testimony is about why leaving the church was right for her (even though — and this is relevant to my blogging interests — she has at least some Mormon attachment, as evidenced by her engagement at Feminist Mormon Housewives or even at Sunstone) instead of about why persisting within the church to help it live up to higher ideals than the low ones it is now mired within is right for her…well, that is telling.

I think one thing that’s become clearer to me, as I read the stories — and yes, testimonies — of various people who stay within the church after faith crisis, or after a change in belief, or after they come to reconceptualize their relationship with the church…is that the difference between people who stay and the people who leave can often depend on whether the person in question “sees” the “big tent” as something that is plausible for the church. Whether they see the church as something that could be compatible with their post-faith crisis, or with their difference in belief, or with their different way of relating to the church. I sense that some of the more orthodox members may share commonality with some disaffected/post/ex/former members — these two groups both tend to view what the church is (and who it is “for”) similarly…the orthodox member agrees and adheres to those compatibility structures, while the disaffected member does not.

The odd man out is the liberal/unorthodox/middle way/uncorrelated Mormon, for her every action is to march to a beat of a different drum…and then to argue that that different drum is nevertheless still Mormonism.

More from Day 2

I’ll end this post here, but in the future, I will be writing a post about the session “All Apologies: The Role of Apologetics in Mormonism and Mormon Studies” (of which Bridget Jack was a member and will post about soon on the new Worlds Without End), because I want to devote more time to the problems of defining Mormonism as a religion and how that creates problems to defending or making a case for Mormonism as a religion.

Then, somehow, I will have to write about my experience at the session “Finding Your Mormon Shaman: Connecting with the Earth and Nature to Receive Personal Revelation“. Did I find my Mormon Shaman? You’ll have to find out later, now won’t you?

A session I probably won’t write about is the one to which Jared Anderson was simply a respondent: “Joseph Smith, Mormon Testament, and the Bible: Additions to the Old and New Testaments.” All I will say there is that Jared has a surprising edge I did not know about. So cruel!

And to round things out, I attended the session Author Meets Critics: The Mormon People: The Making of An American Faith…where an extremely animated Matt Bowman engaged, more or less, in the latest salvo of an academic/political rivalry with Russell Arben Fox.



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  1. The title of “Finding Your Mormon Shaman: Connecting with the Earth and Nature to Receive Personal Revelation“ actually makes my eyeballs roll out the back of my head. Shamanism has nothing to do with “Connecting with the Earth and Nature.”

    • Kullervo,

      Without the too much into the session, the presenters/shamans there did make sure to point out that they are mediators to the unseen world… Connecting with earth and nature, as they explained, was through connecting with the elements/spirits

  2. I think that you are right that those of us who stayed after a heartbreaking and potentially testimony breaking time in our lives do make a strange subset of a ward, or the church in general. I think that the only thing I say to those who think I should have left, either because I am not the same kind of Mormon who has never had a crisis of faith or because they had a similar struggle and leaving was right for them, is that my testimony is my own. It was forged in the crucible of intense pain and suffering. It was made from spiritual experiences that are sacred to me, and while they did not happen in the temple, they are more sacred than the temple ordinances. I don’t need to have the support of any other member or non-member in my experiences and choices.

    That statement seems to make both orthodox and ex-members uncomfortable. For the orthodox, it is troubling that I claim my testimony as my own, irrespective of any one position of an apostle or prophet. I view everyone as human, fallable, and likely to make both mistakes and beautiful miracles. The desire to keep my experiences close, to not hold them up as a banner do that other people will believe in them is often seen as selfish. Several times I have been asked to talk about them. While I am happy to share some of the resources that helped shape my experiences, the crisis that brought me to them, and the experiences that made me choose to stay are not for public consumption, no matter how believing the person is.

    Ex-members often seem offended that I won’t share a lot of the details that brought me to my crisis of faith. Several have accused me of not really having had one, since when they had theirs, they shared it with everyone as part of their testimony that the church is not true. Sometimes it almost seems as if calling me a liar doesn’t go far enough. I have had several people tell me that if I can’t talk about my experiences, that I must not really believe. If I can’t/won’t share the experiences that led me to stay that my faith must be very fragile, since I won’t expose them to have them be accepted or rejected as valid.

    I identify with members who decided to leave, just as much, if not more, as I identify with the orthodox members whose faith has never waivered. I have been at the point of not seeing anything for me in the church, of not knowing if the gospel is true, of being disillusioned by both history and present day actions of the church and some of its leaders. I can see that for someone who did not have my life, my experiences and my way of processing them, unbelief would be the obvious choice. There is no judgment, no feeling that everyone should search for similar experiences and stay until they have them. I wasn’t looking for them. I was pretty sure I would leave and never come back. At that point, I would not have missed the church.

    This got kind of long without me realizing I was rambling. I think that no matter what choices a person makes, no one will walk the same path as someone else. I wish that both the orthodox and ex-member communities would accept that the “other side” has as much claim to their own experiences as they themselves do. In the end a decision to leave or stay, convert or not, is a personal choice.

    Being available to answer questions and provide support to those who choose to leave, or those who choise to stay is important. Debating the experiences of those who have lived different lives and who have different experiences with the church, with faith and with the spiritual or non-spiritual parts of themselves are imprinted on their souls. Debating won’t change how they see themselves, although it might change whether they respect you or not.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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