A Thanks and a Plea

My last day as a Sunstone employee is Friday, December 10th. After calling myself a student for the past 10 years, I’ve decided it’s time to do more than just take the occasional night class. I don’t want to leave Sunstone, easily the best job a person could hope to have, but I feel like it’s the right thing to do for my family. It’s been a great, and altogether too-fast three years.

I leave with great thanks to the staff at Sunstone, a wonderful group of people to work with. I’ve also worked with many remarkable people in creating the magazine and in planning symposiums across the country. These are such bright minds, such thoughtful individuals, I’ve spent three years looking over my shoulder, waiting for someone to look at me, eyes narrowing, and realize I don’t belong. What’s a punk kid like me doing corresponding and working with brilliant authors and thinkers?

It will be nice, I have to confess, to not have such an official connection to an often misunderstood and even despised organization. (For starters, Dan Wotherspoon must be thrilled that he doesn’t have to worry about my online rants being mistakenly associated with Sunstone.) In case those in the bloggernacle haven’t noticed, I don’t take criticism of Sunstone well. I’m not sure why I insist on taking it so personally, but I do. Oh my, the apologies I owe to people like Louis Midgley, Nate Oman, John Fowles, or others who had the gall to criticize aspects of Sunstone or liberal Mormonism and had to put up with my snotty sarcasm or arrogance.

So in my last days as a Sunstone employee, I have one final plea to the bloggernacle and online community: Go easy on those of us of a Sunstone bent. I’m not good at talking about personal feelings or reflecting on emotions, so forgive my clumsiness. But we’re really no different than you. We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got. I’ve always been amazed that so much attention seems to be given to Sunstone, to excommunicants, or to liberal Mormons in general. Everyday so many people quietly walk away from Mormonism that I’ve wondered why the fuss over such a small group of people.

The difference between someone like me and so many others who do leave is I’ve tried so desperately to hang on, in spite of all my issues. I know this isn’t generally seen as admirable, but you only struggle with those things that you love. If I didn’t love or care about Mormonism, it wouldn’t be hard at all to throw in the towel. It is, after all, an entirely voluntary organization. I don’t have to be here. It may not seem like it to someone for whom belief and activity comes easy, but I think the Sunstone desire to fight for ones faith ought to count for something.

It’s a terrible thing to feel rejected for who you are. And that’s the key: I feel like this is who I am, not just a choice I’ve made. I remember being five or six years old, down in my parent’s basement. Something happened to me – I don’t recall what, perhaps I’d lost at Atari – and I felt like I needed to pray. I knelt down and closed my eyes, and then I wondered if God was really there. After all, I hadn’t seen him and I only knew he was there because other people had told me he was there. I’m sure the thoughts weren’t very advanced, but somehow I made the connection, even at that young age: I’m trusting other people and I don’t know for myself. As kids are inclined to do, I was silly and made up my mind then and there that I wasn’t going to believe in God. “I don’t think he’s there,” I distinctly remember thinking. It didn’t last. I’m not sure what happened to make me decide God really was there, but I did.

Since then my life has been full of belief and faith struggles. I remember in high school, wondering if 2,000 years from now our beliefs will be considered mythical, just as we consider Egyptian beliefs and Greek beliefs fiction. They engaged in ceremony and practices meant to honor their Gods; we do the same. Is there any difference, I wondered? I’ve always struggled with the tiny number of Latter-day Saints, relative to the rest of the world. Why did I get to be born into the “one true church?” Isn’t it convenient that it’s everyone else who’s wrong, and I’m right; they’re the ones who need to change, I get to keep on keepin’ on.

Not only do I not know how to make such doubts go away, I don’t want them to go away. I don’t want to pretend like they don’t exist for me, like prayer and scripture study just make it all better. Believe me, I’ve been there, and while prayer and scripture study do make life better, they won’t drive the doubts from you. They are there, in the deepest parts of my soul – asking me to not have them is like asking a believer to stop believing.

Try giving us the benefit of the doubt. Do you really think its fun being marginalized, labeled with names, looked at with raised eyebrows? We’re not trying to rock the boat or make you feel uncomfortable or fight against the Church. We’re just trying to find out where we fit, to see if the Mormon tent really does have a place for us, even if it is just over in the corner somewhere. A lot of people are able to do this quietly and on their own. Some of us need to vocalize what we’re thinking. It gets repetitive and boring for those who have moved on, but it’s therapeutic for those who need it. Remember too, that we have our reasons for what we do. They may not always be good or right, but they’re there, and your reasons aren’t always good or right either.

Remember that it takes patience and a willingness to understand where a fellow like me comes from. Someone who is seen as a more traditional member can always weep, bear their testimony, and use phrases like “have more faith” (whatever that means) or other one-liners meant to respond to the beliefs of the Sunstoner. Of course I don’t have that luxury. If someone truly wants to know what I believe and why, it requires listening to my experience with Mormon history, with my understanding of revelation and its (apparent) rarity, with my view of other religions, and my overall interpretation of the Mormon world. It doesn’t mean I’m right or that I expect everyone to agree. But if people would only listen to learn and understand, instead of insisting on listening to respond, then maybe there could be less animosity and marginalization.

So that’s my plea. Hopefully with my lack of connection to Sunstone, Steve won’t graduate me from practically useless to completely worthless and replace me with a much better blogger J 

Comments

  1. Aaron Brown says:

    Thanks very much for your comments, John. You articulated quite well some of the same thoughts and feelings I’ve had at various times over the years.

    Maybe it’s just me, but I always thought a good bit of the BCC’s cachet stemmed from having the “Managing Editor of Sunstone” as a permanent blogger. What a shame that I won’t be able to brag about this anymore.

    Before you go, can you at least use your power and authority to bless your co-bloggers in some fashion? Maybe you could send us each a boxload of those cool, new Sunstone refrigerator magnets!

    Aaron B

  2. I suspect that many more people (including me) are similarly trying to stay active and keep the faith while dealing with a natural disposition toward disbelief. I don’t know why my friends don’t similarly struggle. They cheerfully dismiss anything that might create cognitive dissonance and cheerfully accept any and all callings that come their way.

    This is the sad part: If you struggle with the gospel, but decide to be active, inevitably you will find yourself in a situation where you are vilified, even if you aren’t overly vocal about your disbelief. If you were an investigator or coming out of inactivity, and had the same issues, I guarantee that the attitude would be different.

    Anyway, thanks for your thoughts, John.

  3. John Hatch, you are much man.

  4. The problem I personally have with many expressions of doubt(as evidenced by my response to Kaimi’s thread on swords on timesandseasons) is that people who claim to be struggling often *seem* to be arguing against what they claim to want to believe. Let me try that again…

    I hang out on the Deseret Book board a lot because there are plenty of sincere struggling people who are looking for answers to questions. They’re happy to find something plausible, even if it’s not a perfect solution. When someone says “I’m struggling with x” and someone else offers a plausible response, and the first person argues against it, than I get the perception that that person isn’t actually looking for an answer.

    I’m not a great communicator, so let me try to sum that up. I welcome people with doubts and questions. I don’t think we progress much without them. But people who refuse to accept *anything* that might help then seem to be like sick people who refuse medicine, for lack of a better metaphor.

    I’m not saying there aren’t any unresolved issues, just that some *seem* to take refuge in their doubts. I perceive that as insincerity.

  5. BTW, I do appreciate this post. I met and talked to Dan Wotherspoon and Tom Kimball at the SBL conference, and John’s posts came up:)

  6. Aaron Brown says:

    Ben,

    People who struggle with doubts about issue X, Y or Z are likely to have already heard various answers from their fellow members, and found them unsatisfactory. So it seems unrealistic for you to assume that just because a doubter argues with the first canned answer thrown at him, that he must be “insincere” and “not really looking for an answer.”

    Doubters are not just people looking for answers. They are people looking for GOOD ANSWERS. They perceive the traditional answers to be insufficient, and they hope that there is something better out there that can help them resolve their qualms. Frustration can easily set in when the answers they are presented with seem so obviously deficient.

    Aaron B

  7. That’s just it, thank you. *Any* answer is seen as a canned answer and summarily dismissed. In my experience, anyway.

  8. Nate Oman says:

    John H. thanks for your thoughts here. Your plea for acceptance and charity seem entirely appropriate and sincere. Just remember, not everyone who disagrees with you is personally attacking you or arguing that your choices, feelings, or doubts are illegitimate. Sometimes, I just think you are wrong. Nothing personal at all ;->

  9. Nate Oman says:

    BTW, what exactly will you be studying? Where and to what end?

  10. D. Fletcher says:

    I feel very much akin to you, John, in the substance of your words here. I have wrestled with my feelings about the Church all of my adult life, though I have participated without rancor, and yet have been nonetheless marginalized. I often feel marginalized by both “wings” of Church members, those that want only testimonials of the truth, and those that wish for intellectualization of said truth.

    Anyway, thanks for this.

  11. john, i really liked your post. i too have had many of the same issues, and think i would feel more marginalized if i weren’t so apathetic about it all. i hope that you will continue to evaluate your beliefs critically, and thus come to a better understanding of the church and yourself. the church needs more people like you, and i am glad that you’ve decided to fight the honorable fight. good luck in your future undertakings whatever they may be.

  12. Bob Caswell says:

    Ok John, I’m onboard with the plea. But so as to not thread jack, I’d like to ask you to make a separate post about this little tidbit: “…my understanding of revelation and its (apparent) rarity…”

    I have an idea of what you may be referring to but personally find that comment to be somewhat of a teaser. I think it could make for a fascinating discussion (hopefully we didn’t already have it, and I just missed out).

  13. john fowles says:

    John, I second what Nate said. Additionally, I do indeed respect you greatly for hanging on despite those issues you say you have.

    You wrote, Try giving us the benefit of the doubt. Do you really think its fun being marginalized, labeled with names, looked at with raised eyebrows?

    Something that I have often mentioned in bloggernacle discussions is the notion that I feel that it is the more traditional, “conservative” Latter-day Saints and the Church in general that need the benefit of the doubt and the presumption of good will. It has often occured to me in the Sunstone-type of discussions or even those here at BCC or T&S, that the Church doesn’t receive any benefit of the doubt or respect in such questioning. All of this is to say that when you appeal for the benefit of the doubt in your views, your request falls on much more empathetic ears than you might assume because it is the same thought that conservative members might be having when reading some of your thoughts: “man, I wish he would just give the Church the benefit of the doubt and proceed with intellectual exploration from that point.” I guess it is a mutual feeling.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  14. John, I rarely visit here at BCC. I was directed by the thread at T&S and did comply however. Thank you for your honesty. I am at the opposite end of the same spectrum. I, since a small child, have had several undeniable spiritual experiences. They have compelled me to cling to the gospel as an anchor. I have different struggles, but struggle still the same. One being – okay I’ve figured this whole thing out, when can we call it a day – struggle. Why do we have to keep on keeping on? Not that I have a death wish – just a struggleless life. So whether we question God’s veracity or know for a fact of His existence, we all struggle.

    So I wish you well, kind sir. And if, thanks to you, when I encounter an unfamiliar account of another’s struggle or questioning, I will give them the benefit of the doubt due to our combined struggles. And recognize another – just on the journey – doing the best they can.

    Thank you.

  15. John,

    Some very interesting things in this post — thanks. In particular, I was touched by the central interplay between faith and doubt. I think we can all relate to those warring factions within ourselves.

    Any comment as to the result of your tenure at Sunstone? What’s next in store for the mag? Who’s your replacement?

    Also, any comment as to the future of Sunstone?

    Don’t worry about your replacement, by the way. The John Hatch Mk II still has some bugs to fix in its “gadfly” functionality.

  16. Bless your heart. I hope that you and your family find better things and that things go well for you.

  17. Too bad I couldn’t ask you to see if you could get Toscano to review and reply to the thread about her article.

    Ah well, you’ve found better things to do, and may God go with you.

  18. Nate:

    I’m finishing a history degree (and a film minor) and then hope to go from there . . . to what, I’m not sure.

    Steve:

    Hmmm… I’m not sure how to comment on my tenure. I think my influence has been minimal. I do think I brought passion to Sunstone – I was interested in the discussion personally and had invested in it. I suppose that’s probably good and bad. Dan also has that passion, so it was a good combo for me.

    I suspect you’ll see more consistency from Sunstone with Dan at the helm. One thing we recently learned, if I’m not being too open (sorry again, Dan!), is that there is still a tremendous hunger for truly scholarly articles. When I first arrived at Sunstone, we had more of a “personal essay” focus. Sunstone is really the only published place where people can share their authentic voice. Dialogue doesn’t do too much of it and Journal of Mormon History and others have different missions. But with the overwhelmingly positive comments on the last four issues (articles on the Book of Mormon, Duffy on LDS Apologetics, Toscano on Mother in Heaven, and Jeffery on Noah’s Flood) we’ve learned that people want scholarship too. Of course, we knew that before, but I don’t think it really hit home until these issues.

    Even if people disagree with conclusions or perspectives in these articles, they can’t argue that they aren’t well thought out and thoroughly researched.

    My replacement is a great guy named Allen Hill. He comes from UVSC and has a lot to offer, particularly in the way of creative layout and graphic arts.

    My comment on the future of Sunstone and all independent organizations: I hope they survive. I think they will, but sometimes I wonder. No, not because the Church wants to quash them like a bug – I don’t believe that. But because young people like us are spending our time at blogs, email lists, and message boards. These online communities fulfill much of the need Sunstone used to fill – a community of like-minded people who could discuss issues.

    But no blog will feature an article like Duane Jeffery’s or John-Charles Duffy’s. And I don’t think people truly appreciate how close to disappearing *all* independent forums are. That’s not to say they are in peril every moment. But if a dozen donors stopped giving, if the right people stopped participating, it’d get mighty tough.

    As an example, BYU Studies, with all of its resources, has only a handful more subscribers than Sunstone. The problem isn’t so much financial resources (though that’s always a concern) as it is lack of interest and competing electronic forums. The average age of a Sunstone subscriber is somewhere around 67. That’s not an exaggeration. What does that mean will be going on 10 years from now?

  19. Rob Briggs says:

    John, Thanks very much for your post. As usual it’s very well expressed. I appreciate your including me in the email you sent of your departure. I’m out of town so I’m having difficulties sending email (otherwise I would have replied by now), but I can post online.

    You and I have discussed before the differences between someone like me on the periphery (geographically, this is — in So. Cal) and someone like you at Sunstone in SLC at ground zero of Headquarters Culture. Frankly, I don’t think you’re very much different than me or any number of people who post in the bloggernacle. But being at Ground Zero has made you feel, if I may venture an opinion, “embattled.”

    Here’s hoping that with this move you’ll continue struggling with faith & doubt, but without that embattled feeling. That don’t sound healthy.

    I think about our enjoyable dinner in Dallas a year ago last October. Let’s make sure we do that again sometime. Best to you, guy.

  20. Kevin Christensen says:

    John, I wish you all success in the future. It’s having questions lurking about that has made it possible to recognize the significance of answers I have found. I tend to behave with all the restraint and scholarly detatchment that characterized Archimedes up out the bath when I come up with something I think is good. And it’s the answers I have found that permits me to keep my questions in perspective.

    Kevin Christensen
    Pittsburgh, PA

  21. Wonderful post John!

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