Mormonism is a powerful tradition, presenting a worldview and truth claims that are extremely potent, but also creating a culture that can be, for many of us, totalizing. When we feel safe and secure within its teachings and the sense of meaning it presents, it can be a wonderful, comfortable home. If, on the other hand, we find ourselves holding a more complex view about its doctrines or occupying a position at odds in any way with the community and dominant culture, we can feel very much an outsider. For those of us in this situation, our preoccupation often becomes how can we negotiate the our new relationships and its tensions while still feeling fully ourselves? How can we participate—and even teach and lead—when we know or feel more than we sense is safe to say? How can we continue to have integrity with ourselves and our community?
These are the questions posed in this episode. Departing a bit from the typical Mormon Matters panel format, this two-part episode features host Dan Wotherspoon, along with LDS author Neylan McBaine, as interviewees, fielding queries (and sometimes pushback) from two Mormon Matters listeners, Adam Leavitt and Jefferson Birrell. What emerges is a spirited, intense, but ultimately empowering conversation that we believe listeners will very much relate to and hopefully come away from with renewed intensity to continue and make the most of their own spiritual questing.
We hope you’ll listen and then share your ideas and questions in the comments section below!
Links to writings mentioned in the podcast:
Neylan McBaine, Women at Church: Magnifying LDS Women’s Local Impact, Greg Kofford Books, 2014
Dan Wotherspoon, “In a Room Down the Hall from the Bishop’s Office,” Sunstone, October 2003 (about not being allowed to ordain his son a deacon).
Taylor G. Petrey, “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology,” Dialogue, Winter 2011 (includes sections on LDS ideas about gendered spirits and whether spirits are brought into being via procreation)
Mormon Matters Podcast 92-93: Discussion of ideas in the Petrey article cited above
Abstract for Samuel Brown’s BYU Studies article, “Believing Adoption,” mentioned that also expands on spirit birth (not yet available online for free)
I have a question for Neylan. Have you slept in the past few weeks? It seems like you have done every single podcast and venue for your book. I hope you get a chance to relax soon!
Ha! Dave, are you sick of me yet? I’m impressed you’ve taken such note of my appearances. But, as my husband says, I’m only doing my first book tour once so I’m trying to make the most of it! Sadly, there are no trips to Hawaii in my future though.
I never get sick of thoughtful people. Keep up the good work!
I think that if things pick up with the church site and members do look at the material we are going to have to have these intense conversations on Sundays. This stuff is going to blow TBMs out of the water.
Neylan,your comments at the end were beautiful.
Long time listener, first time commenter here. This, THIS is what I’ve been waiting for! These are the conversations that we need to be having. Thank you all so much for this. For the first time in months I’m imagining that I could get through a Sunday WITHOUT having a coronary.
I am very grateful to have been a part of this conversation. The biggest thing that I took away from being a part of this conversation is that even though Dan and Neylan do not completely have the same faith paradigm (I imagine they are vastly different), they both stand together inside Mormonism.
If anything, I feel refreshed to have an actual example of this orchestra with variety that I have heard preached. Too often, I feel like there is some threshold to being a Mormon, and I do think this is perpetuated.
Neylan’s story of how her daughter was upset over her testimony was very powerful to me. She didn’t know if she had a testimony or not but she was living the standards and wanted to go to the temple dedication. As impossible as it seems, if I am worthy and have a desire, then there is no threshold, regardless of what is preached.
Hey ALewis, I know the feeling and I’m not even LDS! 🙂 All the best for your journey, and your blood pressure! 😉
Shout out to Neylan!!! She mentions my ancestor, Sarah Leavitt, in her book, Women at Church.
Yes this was an excellent podcast. Dan wotherspoon is my hero. Hey Dan, have you ever thought of writing a book that would be about these kind of issues you covered in this podcast?
Great podcast and I appreciate the openness of the panel. I know these are very personal things to discuss. My question would be–has the LDS church helped you gain a knowledge of God more fully than an independent path? I ask because after my 30+ years in the church, I do not have a strong relationship with God. I choose to believe that he exists, but belief in God is a conscious decision I make, not something that I have evidence for. On a related note, this coming Sunday I’m going to spend about 3 hours in leadership meeting before church, 3 hours at church, and if I wasn’t already planning to skip a stake training it’d be another 1.5 hours in the evening. But what if I spent those 7.5 hours reading alone, meditating, talking about religion with my wife and kids, or even visiting other places of worship for a new perspective?
Hi Jay, just wanted to offer an outside perspective there, because I’ve spent my last 30 years mostly doing the stuff you’re wondering about, and I’m not in some kind of rarified spiritual state either…just muddling along, which is really frustrating, because it all began with a really earth-shaking personal experience of God (or, really realistic hallucination ;-)) 30 years ago. For around two years, I had this incredible and saturated and personal relationship with God that changed everything (while, in viewed retrospectively, still having a significant amount of attitude adjustment that needed to happen). Then, what…I grew up? Lost my aerial? Got a dodgy telephone line? Or perhaps a dark night of the soul? I mean, many narrow denominations tried to tell me it’s because I don’t belong to them, but that’s one thing I’m sure it isn’t. Or other such chestnuts…
So from one person trying to act from choice rather than the cloud I was once on and fell off, hello! 🙂 You know what they say, with every yes there is an inevitable no to something else. Maybe do a sabbatical and try out some of the things you are wondering about? You could consider it research. Time is such a limited thing. Or maybe do alternating Sundays. Anyway, best wishes for your journey.
You said that you didn’t know of anyone who was disciplined for worshiping and/or wanting to have a relationship with Heavenly Mother (my paraphrase), and you said that President Hinckley’s injunction to praying to Heavenly Mother was limited to public prayer. I live in Utah County, and I can almost guarantee that the vast majority of local leaders would seriously look askance if someone slipped and said that privately they were worshiping Heavenly Mother. I have a friend whose temple recommend was taken away because she expressed a desire to have a relationship with Heavenly Mother. And I am most certain that President Hinckley’s counsel extended to private worship.
This is an excessively confusing time in which to live. It seems like the rules of the game on all sides of the spectrum are in question. I sit in church mute and unresponsive because I never know how the wind is blowing at any given moment. After half a century in the Church, it’s now okay to worship Heavenly Mother, even privately? These changes are being made under the table, quietly, so no one in authority has to take responsibility. And it leaves me feeling insecure.
The last time I heard anything over the pulpit about Mother in Heaven, or anything official (like in a manual) was when we were told not to pray to her. I also remember that at least one excommunication occurred because of writings about her. While Neylan interprets the silence of the church authorities on this matter as an invitation to use our own personal inspiration and thought, I would be willing to bet that most LDS people interpret it to mean that nothing has changed, that the last message given two decades ago is the one that still stands.
I was aware of the Church essay on the First Vision, but I hadn’t heard about the seminary manual’s inoculation concerning the multiple First Vision accounts. Thanks for that little bit of news.
I looked at it, and I had to shake my head with the way it was written: “In these accounts, Joseph Smith emphasized different aspects of his experience of the First Vision, ***but the accounts all agree in the essential truth that Joseph Smith did indeed have the heavens opened to him and see divine messengers, including God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.***” (emphasis added)
The statement that they “all agree” implies that each account recites Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. They just can’t help themselves, can they? They have to write it in a way to give the false impression that Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ were both mentioned.
Anyway, I’m glad they are at least mentioning the multiple accounts, even if they are presented in a way to give a false impression.
I think that the basic problem here is that people inevitably will back themselves into a corner when they think they are in some kind of organisation that’s God-given, or otherwise more perfect than others, and then have to deal with flaws and contradictions by pretending they don’t exist or can be explained away. This problem isn’t just limited to the LDS organisation either. Intellectual humility – the admission that you could be wrong – in parallel with whatever personal faith would do so much for many denominations/religions.
Love this analysis by G.K. Chesterton. It came to mind during the discussion. What a challenging world we live in.
“There is only one way to preserve in the world that high levity and that more leisurely outlook which fulfils the old vision of universalism. That is, to permit the existence of a partly protected half of humanity; a half which the harassing industrial demand troubles indeed, but only troubles indirectly. In other words, there must be in every center of humanity one human being upon a larger plan; one who does not “give her best,” but gives her all.
“Our old analogy of the fire remains the most workable one. The fire need not blaze like electricity nor boil like boiling water; its point is that it blazes more than water and warms more than light. The wife is like the fire, or to put things in their proper proportion, the fire is like the wife. Like the fire, the woman is expected to cook: not to excel in cooking, but to cook; to cook better than her husband who is earning the coke by lecturing on botany or breaking stones. Like the fire, the woman is expected to tell tales to the children, not original and artistic tales, but tales–better tales than would probably be told by a first-class cook. Like the fire, the woman is expected to illuminate and ventilate, not by the most startling revelations or the wildest winds of thought, but better than a man can do it after breaking stones or lecturing. But she cannot be expected to endure anything like this universal duty if she is also to endure the direct cruelty of competitive or bureaucratic toil. Woman must be a cook, but not a competitive cook; a school mistress, but not a competitive schoolmistress; a house-decorator but not a competitive house-decorator; a dressmaker, but not a competitive dressmaker. She should have not one trade but twenty hobbies; she, unlike the man, may develop all her second bests. This is what has been really aimed at from the first in what is called the seclusion, or even the oppression, of women. Women were not kept at home in order to keep them narrow; on the contrary, they were kept at home in order to keep them broad. The world outside the home was one mass of narrowness, a maze of cramped paths, a madhouse of monomaniacs. It was only by partly limiting and protecting the woman that she was enabled to play at five or six professions and so come almost as near to God as the child when he plays at a hundred trades. But the woman’s professions, unlike the child’s, were all truly and almost terribly fruitful; so tragically real that nothing but her universality and balance prevented them being merely morbid. This is the substance of the contention I offer about the historic female position. I do not deny that women have been wronged and even tortured; but I doubt if they were ever tortured so much as they are tortured now by the absurd modern attempt to make them domestic empresses and competitive clerks at the same time. I do not deny that even under the old tradition women had a harder time than men; that is why we take off our hats. I do not deny that all these various female functions were exasperating; but I say that there was some aim and meaning in keeping them various. I do not pause even to deny that woman was a servant; but at least she was a general servant.
“. . . Two gigantic facts of nature fixed it thus: first, that the woman who frequently fulfilled her functions literally could not be specially prominent in experiment and adventure; and second, that the same natural operation surrounded her with very young children, who require to be taught not so much anything as everything. Babies need not to be taught a trade, but to be introduced to a world. To put the matter shortly, woman is generally shut up in a house with a human being at the time when he asks all the questions that there are, and some that there aren’t. It would be odd if she retained any of the narrowness of a specialist. Now if anyone says that this duty of general enlightenment (even when freed from modern rules and hours, and exercised more spontaneously by a more protected person) is in itself too exacting and oppressive, I can understand the view. I can only answer that our race has thought it worth while to cast this burden on women in order to keep common-sense in the world. But when people begin to talk about this domestic duty as not merely difficult but trivial and dreary, I simply give up the question. For I cannot with the utmost energy of imagination conceive what they mean. When domesticity, for instance, is called drudgery, all the difficulty arises from a double meaning in the word. If drudgery only means dreadfully hard work, I admit the woman drudges in the home, as a man might drudge at the Cathedral of Amiens or drudge behind a gun at Trafalgar. But if it means that the hard work is more heavy because it is trifling, colorless and of small import to the soul, then as I say, I give it up; I do not know what the words mean. To be Queen Elizabeth within a definite area, deciding sales, banquets, labors and holidays; to be Whiteley within a certain area, providing toys, boots, sheets cakes. and books, to be Aristotle within a certain area, teaching morals, manners, theology, and hygiene; I can understand how this might exhaust the mind, but I cannot imagine how it could narrow it. How can it be a large career to tell other people’s children about the Rule of Three, and a small career to tell one’s own children about the universe? How can it be broad to be the same thing to everyone, and narrow to be everything to someone? No; a woman’s function is laborious, but because it is gigantic, not because it is minute I will pity Mrs. Jones for the hugeness of her task; I will never pity her for its smallness.”
Great podcast. I agree with so much that was discussed here. It seems like everyone kind of came to an agreement that the three-hour block is not the place to bring up these tough issues. I can agree with that to an extent—especially if it serves no purpose other than to be contrary or to shake someone else’s faith. For me, the problem is that the same consideration is never taken on the other side. No one seems to hesitate before saying horrible things about gays or feminists. I can counter those arguments, but next week in General Conference, their viewpoints will be validated and mine won’t. The only way I can seriously make my point valid is to point out the fact that prophets have been seriously misguided about important issues in the past, and that perhaps absolute obedience isn’t such a great virtue. To counter a lesson that uses genocide in the Old Testament as an object lesson for (once again) obedience, I have to question the infallibility of scripture. I do occasionally do these types of things. But I know it makes people uncomfortable. And I don’t like to be that guy. And if I did it every time someone said something stupid, I’d be doing it every lesson, every week, which we all agree isn’t the time or place to be doing it. So most of the time, I just sit there quietly and take it, and ultimately leave church feeling empty and discouraged. I love your version of Mormonism, I guess I still haven’t figured out how to live it in the Mormon church.
For me church has come to feel like role playing. What is the point in going to church? I feel like listening to something like this is much more spiritual and uplifting. The standard reply to that is that we don’t go to church for us. But the church environment isn’t a safe place to share the things that I value and think about and who I am. I genuinely love the people in my own local congregation, but they view things from such a different perspective that I don’t see a path to meaningful participation within or contribution to the community. So why am I there? For me the answer is for my family because they value it, but that is kind of a miserable church experience personally.
But we do go to church for us, Anonymous. Although it is when we focus on serving others that we become nourished. I know you know this but I’m reminding myself as well. If Christ asks us to see him and serve him in our interactions with the homeless, the prisoner, the widow, the sick, and the orphan, hopefully we can see him in our brothers and sisters at church and outside as well.
The sacrament can be a holy time of meaningful meditation. It can help us reconnect with this incarnate example of divine love. It can be powerful. Of course if you have wiggling children like I used to have–not so much at times.
We can go praying for opportunities to be the hands and heart of a loving God and meekly see what plays out.
And seek ways to kindly and gently give alternate views–often posed as personal questions. Actually, they should be posed as questions so that there will be room for new information and revelation.
I’m no expert at any of this but working on it. If we don’t ever express ourselves the church (it’s members as well as leaders) won’t grow and evolve into a more loving and accepting community where we CAN be more open to differing points of view.
Here’s what I got out of this great discussion (thanks again Dan):
My relationship with God and with Mormonism, and my personal faith in all of it can and should be a very private and personal one. I can live what is true to me, as it resonates with me, and as personal experience shows it to me without having to feel a need to make it a public one, or with the expectation that others should see it the same way.
Each person’s spiritual path is their own between them and God. That means I can participate in my ward family, in my 3 hour-block lessons, etc without having to feel disingenuous or inauthentic if I don’t speak out on every single thing I disagree with. I can view the ward family and the Sunday block as a place for me to practice my engaging with my community, in serving, in loving, and in building better Christ-like attributes through that community and service and love. It can be viewed as a place to love and support one another and doesn’t have to be a place where all the errors, all the inconsistencies, all the historical problems have to be laid out.
In that same spirit, I can then view myself as a “bridge”. Where the Spirit speaks to me to share a different perspective in a way that is healthy and uplifting, and could even help to heal perpetuated misunderstandings of God and scripture, I can engage and share to that effort, but always with the spirit of bridging in positive ways, guided by the Spirit and not my own agenda.
This will be what I’ll continue to remind myself so that I can keep a bigger perspective, one that takes in the vista of this church from a mountain top and not from under a microscope. This can give me purpose even when my own personal faith and truth look very different from others. That’s okay. I can trust that God is at the helm. He’s got this. “Be still, and know that I am God” is always good advice for me to follow.
Mind you, this is what I got out of this discussion, not what I’m great at doing already. But I like that it’s given me a different perspective for me to practice.
I appreciated Neylan’s final comment–especially that she said that she “struggles” (even though she wouldn’t define her struggle as a faith crisis, per se). I’ve seen her as such a confident, sure person that it’s nice to hear her path is a continual process–with ups and downs like the rest of us.
Neylan… I was listening, and couldn’t believe my ears.
At one point you said what was essentially the equivalent of, “the leaders give us permission to give up our prejudices.” That is profoundly scary. I hope we never have to wait for the leaders to allow us to do the right thing… just because the church itself is backward. I want to be part of a broad, expansive church… one that motivates me to do better, not one that gives me permission to do something I have done since I was a lad. This was incredibly disheartening… and that it could be expressed with all sincerity.
No, we should not wait to do the right thing just because the church authorities are not in front of an issue yet. It is time to use our own God given power of discernment.
(This is the Australian, non-LDS, non-denominational Sue: There is at least one other one floating around here: And maybe a moderator could retrospectively distinguish us by allowing a consistent addition of an initial that includes all posts made here…)
Hey guys, that question of how to be authentic and not end up an outcast or viewed as a lesser member is one that’s a big struggle for me too, as a non-denominational Christian. After a spiritual experience as a teenager that completely changed my perspective ever after, I’ve spent nearly three decades trying to find some kind of home community around shared faith, and visiting all sorts of congregations, including LDS. Unfortunately, most churches who are passionate about a personal relationship with God also tend to be fundamentalist and non-nuanced, and have what I consider pretty vile political attitudes around social justice, poverty, disadvantage, LGBT issues and the need for responsible environmental stewardship.
Around half a year ago I found, via a neighbour and ex-colleague I really like, a very nice small “home” group run by a non-denominational Christian church. I love the people there and I even enjoyed the “big” Sunday services I went to for a while. Then I had to take a break because I looked after a person with a disability on six consecutive weekends while her parents, who normally look after her on weekends, went on a holiday together for the first time in over 20 years to visit another sibling overseas. And after that, I kind of hesitated to go back.
Why? Because I wondered if people would still include me and like me in an uncomplicated manner if they knew what I really thought about some of the same key issues that confront a lot of thinking, progressive LDS people in the Mormon Stories/Matters podcasts as well. Like, I can’t and won’t agree with some of the common ostracising of, and discriminating against, LGBT people in many Christian denominations, and the warped theologies behind that, which are as warped as the theologies that “justified” slavery, apartheid, unequal pay and opportunities for women and non-whites, all that sort of thing. Because it made me very uncomfortable that some of the otherwise lovely people in the group were starting to tell me that all religions other than Christianity (which I wondered how narrowly they defined as well) are of Satan, and that Buddhism was dangerous and driven by the devil, etc. Well, I disagreed with that as well, and that’s one small thing I actually voiced my disagreement on the second last time I was in that small group, and that became a bit of an uncomfortable situation. You all know how it goes (although probably not about Buddhism, in LDS circles) – and that common ground is one of the reasons I listen to so many Mormon Stories / Mormon Matters podcasts. It’s just so demoralising to deal with this kind of stuff when it always leaves you on the outside somehow. And I’ve not even begun to discuss the common demonisation of Darwin (as once happened to Galileo) and the flat-earth attitudes around science…I have a double degree in science and I’m not going to just have a lobotomy so I can agree with some people’s simplistic views about life and the planet.
I know Martin Luther King, in his excellent sermon anthology “Strength to Love”, talked about the need for a creative minority, but it’s so wearying to always be the black sheep, and always have to ironically be the one defending the idea that you are still Christian. It’s why I’ve spent much of my life just taking long sabbaticals from any organised Christianity.
The Quakers are pretty cool. But, at least the small group we have here actually is mostly agnostic as far as the existence of God goes, and while I have a lot of other overlap with them, there is virtually no sharing of the idea of a personal God who wants to be in your life, and I miss that. So often over the past three years, listening to your podcasts has provided a sort of virtual fellowship of the sort I wish I could find on the ground in my local area! Thanks for what you’re doing.
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Just Awesome! Having experienced all of this over the past 15 years and still working through issues, It has been nice to hear that a spiritual search actually produces a “wrestle with the LORD.” I remember a few years ago outwardly speaking aloud and asking if this faith struggle was the way for me to proceed. To know that it’s normal, if you will, is refreshing. Thanks to the panel and keep queuing the music, Dan!