I was asked to present on my religion today in a public forum at my university (11:45am-1:00pm in Roberts 023). I’ll be joined by other staff and faculty, each of us presenting about our faiths. It includes Christianity, Judaism, Paganism, and Islam. It should be a really interesting discussion, and I’m very curious to see how it will play out.
Because I know many of you won’t be able to make it (and because it always helps me to think things through ahead of time), I thought I’d write down some of my answers to the questions we’ll be addressing. The stated goal of the meeting is as follows:
Panelists will tell us about their religious path, what they commonly wish people knew about their religion, and when they have been particularly aware of their religious identities at UMF or in Maine.
It’s followed by time for questions, and who knows where that might lead. Here are the prompts I’ve gotten, and my responses:
How did you come to follow your religious tradition?
I was born into the faith. My parents both come from families that can trace their roots back to the very beginnings of the church. When you read about Mormon pioneers making their way west, those were my ancestors. I grew up in the faith, going to church every week for three hours. At the same time, we’re encouraged to develop our own testimony of the truthfulness of the Gospel. I read the Book of Mormon and prayed about it, and I felt I received spiritual confirmation it was true.
That was taken to a completely different level, however, when I went on my mission. I served in former East Germany for two years, from 1997-1999. I’d always planned on going on a mission, but when I actually went, it was a bit of a shock. I still remember the first night in the Missionary Training Center. For me, “going on a mission” had been a lot like “happily ever after.” I never really thought much about what the nuts and bolts of it would look like.
My first night as a missionary, the realities all set in. I’d be away from my family for two years. I’d only talk to them on the phone four times total. (Christmas and Mother’s Day) I wouldn’t watch movies or read novels. I wouldn’t listen to regular music. I’d be going up to strangers every day to talk about religion.
Anyone who knows me now knows I like to think things through, and I don’t generally do things “just because.” I was the same then. I realized it was one thing to feel good about a religion, but if I was going to really dedicate my life for two years to this gospel, I needed more of a confirmation than that. I needed to be really sure.
The next nine weeks were, thankfully, filled with opportunities to help me find out for myself. Lots of studying the scriptures. Lots of personal prayers. I had some very powerful experiences that bolstered my faith to the point that I was really standing on my own, rather than on what my parents and teachers had taught me. That experience only deepened during my time as a missionary, hearing day in and day out from almost everyone I talked to about how I was wrong. East Germans had lived under state-sponsored atheism for decades. I had many opportunities to hear pretty much every argument against religion in general and mine in particular.
But I also had many experiences that proved basic things to me. God exists, and He hears and answers prayers, not just in an abstract “I felt good” way, but sometimes quite literally. I can pray for guidance, and when I follow the promptings I receive, things will work out. That certainty I developed on my mission has gone on to bless my life countless times.
What is the biggest misconception about your religion?
There are a number that often get brought up. I’d say the largest is that we’re not Christian. This is a touchy subject for many, because there are definitely some Christian denominations who argue against us. Even though our name is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” some argue the Jesus Christ we believe in isn’t the same Christ other Christians believe in.
We believe we’re the restored church of Christ. That He came back to the earth to restore the same church He founded when he first lived. That there was an apostasy from that original church, and so a restoration was necessary. We believe Christ restored that church through the prophet, Joseph Smith. We believe Christ still leads this church through modern revelation and a living prophet.
So sometimes the “who is Christian” topic can get pretty thorny. But we believe, as do other Christians, that Christ was and is the Son of God. That He died for our sins and was resurrected. We believe in following the Ten Commandments and in loving our neighbors as ourselves. We believe the Bible to be the word of God, but we also believe translation errors have crept into it over the years. We believe in the Book of Mormon, an account written by prophets in the ancient Americas, detailing their interactions with Christ as well.
With all this talk of modern prophets and revelation, many also believe we’re a cult of a sect, that we’re all brainwashed. I explain that like this: we believe God has always had a pattern for speaking to His children. He does it individually through prayer, and to a people as a whole through prophets, from Noah to Moses to John the Baptist and on to Peter or Paul after Christ’s death. It’s easier, however, to believe in past prophets than it is to believe in current ones. Again, there’s plenty of precedent for this, historically.
Many of our critics believe in past prophets, but don’t believe in current ones. We believe the need for God to communicate to prophets today is just as important as it was 2,000 or 4,000 years ago. God loves all His children, and He wants them all to be happy.
It’s a complicated topic, and the answers can get pretty complex as well. I guess I’ll just leave it at that for now.
When were you most aware of your religious identity at UMF?
I’d say it was definitely back when Proposition 8 was working its way through California. This was the law that banned gay marriage back in 2008. I had been at UMF for only a year, and UMF, as most of you know, prides itself on being LGBTQ friendly. Meanwhile, my religion was taking a very public stand against Proposition 8, getting members to campaign against it. Raising funds to get it passed. That stance was not popular at all here on campus.
Most of the people I spoke with were upset about the law. At the time, most of the people also weren’t really aware I was a Latter-day Saint. It led to some fairly awkward conversations where I ended up speaking far less than I usually do. A big part of that was due to the fact that I was uncomfortable with my church’s stance. I didn’t want to speak publicly against the church, and I also didn’t want to speak in favor of Proposition 8.
Since that time, I’ve written this blog, and you can look back at the postings I’ve made and see the way my views on gay marriage have evolved over time. (11+ years of writing will do that for you, at least.) There are still members of my faith today who are 100% opposed to gay marriage or anything like it. There are other people who have left the church over its stance. I find myself (as usual) in the middle somewhere. I personally believe people should be able to marry who they want, and I vote accordingly. I believe the church’s stance is evolving as well. Revelation often looks clean cut in retrospect, but the process itself is much messier than we’d like to believe.
Again, a complicated answer for a complicated question.
How has your religious practice/faith informed your time here at UMF?
My faith informs my life on a daily basis. It is ingrained in who I am and how I act. I pray and read the scriptures daily. I pray for guidance in the choices I make, both personally and professionally. This doesn’t mean I run my library like a church building. I am a staunch advocate of patron rights, including things like an unfiltered internet, no censorship of materials, and presenting as wide a range of thoughts and beliefs in the collection as possible.
But how to interact with people? How to have difficult conversations? My faith informs all of that. I believe faith is here to help us today, not at some distant point in the future after we’re dead. And my experience confirms that.
Faith isn’t abstract for me. It’s a very real, very tangible thing. And I suppose that’s where I’ll leave that answer for now.
Thanks for reading!