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On Being Heard within Mormonism

April 9, 2015

Over at Mormon Matters, Dan Wotherspoon has teamed up with Gina Colvin (A Thoughtful Faith) and Natasha Helfer Parker (Mormon Mental Health) to co-produce a podcast about being heard in Mormonism today. This podcast was created mostly in response to this past weekend’s General Conference, in which a few folks indicated that they were opposed during the sustaining of church leaders. This move appears to have been obviously ineffective, with much of the discussion from orthodox members criticizing the stunt. However, one counter-response is that this was supposed to be the institutionally legitimate mechanism for expressing opposition, so if it isn’t, then can grievances be expressed?

I think that a lot of people have covered this topic in one way or another. I know that Carol Lynn Pearson has discussed it on some podcasts she has been on. Stephen Marsh covered the topic of being heard a while back at Wheat & Tares. I don’t think that the answer is what a lot of people really want to hear — one has to really “pay ones dues” (you know, the phrase: “no one cares how much you know until they know how much you care”), and even after that, framing and approach are super critical. Presenting messages in the heat of the moment — from the depths of pain or anger — is just likely to backfire. This produces systemic biases against change and agitation (the status quo can always just dismiss critics as being too emotional, too non-objective, etc.,), but this is meant as a descriptive, not a normative statement — it’s just the way things are.

While I think the podcast reached at similar ideas, what I found fascinating with this podcast with the implied, perhaps subconscious conclusion that each of the participants — Dan, Gina, and Natasha — expressed in some way or another. Rather than talking about ways of being heard within Mormonism, I feel that each participant expressed how they have come to a point where they have a certain independence to or distance from the church institution where they are secure in their own foundations, experiences, etc., and so they don’t feel they need to be heard.

Gina expressed this poignantly at some point in the podcast. To paraphrase, she expressed that living in New Zealand, she perceived that most members there (at the very least, herself) read the church as being too American to pin all of their expectations, hopes, and dreams on.

I wrote other comments on the Mormon Matters comments section that I would also like to expound upon here:

I loved the segment around 38:30 minutes to 48 minutes or so where Dan and Gina first (and Natasha to the latter part of that time frame) discuss whether all (or most) Mormons would have interactions with deity/God/spirit — Gina expressed that making Mormonism (or religion) work “all comes down to your relationship with God”, and Dan (of all people) pushed back, summarizing: “So if you have a relationship with God, then you’ll feel empowered.”

At first, Gina missed the emphasis in Dan’s message at first, continuing to clarify that both the belief in the capacity in religion to be nourishing and a belief in God are fundamental. Dan pushed back further: “But somewhere along the line, you got that relationship with God…” And that’s when Gina said, “I think most of us have had experiences with the divine.” In which case Dan pointed out that many people do not. Gina seemed to be noticeably surprised by that suggestion. I would listen to the podcast just for this exchange (but of course, listen to the rest too!)

I think that the reason Dan was able to push back is because, as he himself says in the podcast, that’s the pushback he gets all the time, so I’m glad that he is really considering that. Because if, as Gina says, belief in the capacity in religion to be nourishing and belief in God are fundamental, then a lot of people are going to just give up right there, because they aren’t convinced about these two things.

Natasha was a superstar on this podcast. After the exchange with Dan and Gina, Natasha points out that part of this may be a problem of language — we are taught a particular way of experiencing with the divine, so if we don’t fit that model, then we say, “well, I’ve never experienced it.” While I agree with that basic message, I don’t know if I totally agree that that solves everything — I hear about a wide variety of spiritual approaches, and I don’t think that I identify with any of them. On the other hand, the things that I do experience that Natasha includes as part of the set — appreciating a certain piece of music, for example — seem very weird to call spiritual.

Gina later on says that people should “thirst for” the spiritual…but if you haven’t ever experienced it (even expanded and redefined, as Natasha and the others discuss), how do you even know to be thirsty? It really drills down to what Gina says — she’s always been a spiritual person. but if you haven’t been, does that mean you should give up this idea that you can be a loving critic?

I think that what Natasha says from 54m to 57m knocks things out of the park, though. If you listen to Dan regularly, you will hear him say occasionally that he is not neutral — he has an agenda to try to keep people in the church if they can make it work and make it healthy. But what Natasha points out that I loved was:

I agree with personal progression, enlightenment…at the same time, whether or not we tie that to God is complicated. For many of us, [God] is a very spiritual, sacred, and personal way to make sense of the growth that is happening…but again, when either the script doesn’t fit your experience or when deity is actually abusive…for example, this very General Conference…if you’re a gay member of our church, our God is abusive. You are called counterfeit, you are told there is no way to have a family of worth if you marry a same gender person. So if you’re buying into that those words coming off from the pulpit are divine verbiage coming from God, from God’s people that are meant to tell you what God wants you to know, then all of a sudden, there’s a lot of cognitive dissonance about how you’re supposed to have a spiritual experience that feels ill to you, that makes you feel nauseous…

…so for many people, deity is not safe, not loving, not progressive; it’s not spiritual to them. And so to keep them in this box of “that’s what it means to really progress,” then I think those of us who have had very beautiful spiritual experiences need to take our own medicine and say, “Even though this has been great to me, I’m just as traditionalist — even if I consider myself a very nuanced Mormon– if I portray this is the only way we can continue to progress is by accepting deity to begin with.”

And I think near the end (1 hr 30 min ~) Natasha kinda gets the others to speak more on the subject of what about for those whom it doesn’t work.

But ultimately, as I said before, I feel that the summary of this podcast is basically that trying to be heard isn’t as important as gaining or cultivating a certain sense of distance or independence from the institution so that you don’t “need” to be heard.

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  1. Dan Wotherspoon permalink

    Glad you enjoyed the episode, and especially those sections. I don’t agree with you that Gina, Natasha, nor I don’t feel that it’s important to be “heard.” I think we all feel we ARE being heard (we all have our own podcasts!), and what emerged (always a surprise) was the discussions of spiritual independence and what resources we draw upon to keep in the fray, to keep pushing to represent ourselves and others who are in pain or struggling and for whom various aspects of current Mormonism are harmful. I can’t see that as meaning “they don’t feel they need to be heard.” I can see it if you meant that, because of their sense of spiritual independence they aren’t as attached to the results of their speaking up (i.e., effectiveness in bringing about change on any kind of large scale) as they otherwise might be (fed by other energy sources or framings about the institution and how to be a change agent), but not if you are thinking that because of spiritual independence we’re not trying to be active, out loud voices.

  2. I would probably clarify that the impression I got from y’all was that you don’t think it’s important to be heard by the institution. For example, notwithstanding the fact that people are being excommunicated very shortly after blogging about touchy subjects like polygamy, for the most part, having a podcast doesn’t really mean you’ll be heard by the institution (and as the excommunications show, even being “heard” doesn’t mean you’ll be appreciated, validated, etc.,) So, that doesn’t really address the reason that people would go to General Conference and say “Opposed” — clearly, they don’t just want to talk to their ward members or to their bishops or to their stake presidents, and yet the church is saying, “We don’t want to hear this. Talk this out locally, or even better yet, don’t talk about it that much at all.”

    It just seemed that you didn’t seem to have any answers for that (being heard by *the institution*), but that your message was that reaching the *institution* should not be critical. That is what I meant.

    Do you disagree with that, or do you think that you are being heard by the institution? Do you think that being heard by the institution matters?

    I mean, I hear Gina lament that the institution is so American. But I don’t hear her saying how she tries to get that message across to that institution.

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