Yesterday I was talking to a fellow ward member on the train coming home from the City. Our conversation got me to thinking about times in my life when it would have been easy for me to cease engagement with the Church. Most of my siblings and both of my children have gone that route, and it easily could have happened to me as well. But at critical junctures in my life certain things have come together in a way that has allowed me to remain a faithful, believing Saint. I thought I would try to catalog some of the circumstances that have conspired karma-like to keep me within the fold.
1. Friends. I grew up in DeKalb, IL, in a small branch that over time grew into a small ward. During my teen years, we for some reason had an odd demographic bubble around my age, and so I had a lot of good church friends, way more than our small overall numbers normally would have predicted. I wanted to go to seminary in those early morning hours, not because I gave a fig about learning anything, but because my friends would be there and I wanted to see my friends. Having good church friends has always been important to me, but it was especially vital in those early teenage years.
2. Attitude. My father was a great influence on me, even if I didn’t fully appreciate it at the time. He taught me not to approach the church with fundamentalist assumptions. Church leaders are human beings, and as such they are fallible and capable of error. And there are times in your church life when you’ve got to stand up and protect yourself or others from overzealous local leadership. But it’s your church as much as it is theirs, and just because someone makes a mistake or offends you is no reason to leave the fold. They can leave if they want, but it’s my church and I’m not going anywhere. My father’s willingness to stand up and do combat for what he believed in was tempered by my mother’s kindness and sense of empathy, an ability to see things from the other person’s point of view. It was a combination that has served me well in my church life.
3. Nibley. As a missionary actually learning things about the church in particular and religion in general began to take on more importance for me. And my mission discovery of Nibley was an important development for me personally. He showed me the importance of a commitment to scholarship, and modeled for me enthusiasm for learning. Under his influence I also began to trend in a more liberal engagement with the church and the world.
4. Classics. At BYU I ended up majoring in classics. And that was a great place for me there. Again, I had great friends, but my professors (and I include here S. Kent Brown, for whom I worked as a T.A.) were simply outstanding mentors. I felt that I got as good an undergraduate education as I could have anywhere in the country, and being in classics made BYU’s cultural weirdness tolerable.
5. Independent Journals. Also at BYU I discovered the independent journals, Dialogue and Sunstone, the fledgling FARMS, and later MHA. I’m the type of guy who needs to know where the bodies are buried. I want to know what all the skeletons in the closet are. I simply couldn’t be an engaged and faithful Saint if I were wondering what else was lingering out there that I didn’t know about. What many people perceive as a threat to faith for me was an essential element of developing faith.
6. Friends again. I’ve had a whole series of knowledgeable and engaging friends with whom I have been able to discuss anything about the Church freely, openly, without fear of harming a tender testimony. While still at BYU I was in the same married student ward with Blake Ostler, and his work was a significant early influence on me. I’m bright enough to see the problems, but I’m not a philosopher and would have difficulty working my own way through the kinds of issues Blake has tackled.
When I left BYU for the University of Illinois, my first EQP was Michael Hicks, now a professor of Music at BYU. What an outstanding role model for what it means to be a liberal but faithful Saint! And that Elders Quorum simply rocked.
Up here in the Chicago area my good friend Jonathan Thomas has given me someone I can discuss anything with. For a number of years we had a monthly gospel discussion group in Chicago, which was wonderful.
7. Blogs. The blogs for me are an extension of these kinds of personal friendships with bright, committed, engaging Latter-day Saints. To me being able to have wide ranging, open conversations about pretty much anything involving the Church is a wonderful release valve for when pressure begins to build and affect my relationship with the Church in a negative way.
So it kind of looks to me like a chiasm. Gaining a certain level of fundamental knowledge about the Church was really important to me in the middle of my life. But early on and again now that I’m older, having good, quality friends in the Church is really all-important. For me, continued engagement in the Church is as much about outstanding social relationships as it is about testimony.