Email to a spiritual seeker

By July 30, 2009

I post this because it may be of some value to someone. I strongly believe in sharing faith journeys. Listening forces us to confront the prismatic nature of another person’s spiritual experience and accept that perhaps a multiplicity of paths lead to the same truth or to a different truth entirely. We become less judgemental of others as we learn the ways in which God has worked in their lives, sometimes inexplicably, but usually in ways that are similar to our own.

A student emailed me requesting details about YDS. He asked some specific questions, the responses to which I have posted below. Not many of you may be planning to attend divinity school, but you are all presumably on your own faith journeys that involve your own particular set of challenges. Perhaps some of my experience will resonate with yours.

What may a LDS expect in company with future Protestant ministers?
I would say that you can expect to be surrounded by a group of accomplished students who care deeply about faith and their individual denominations. Not all of these students care about their own spirituality, but some of them do. The number of Mormons at the divinity school is roughly proportional to the number of Mormons in the wider U.S. population, which is not bad. But, that still means they are a minority, not to mention that they are theologically anomalous among other Christian faiths. You can expect having to defend your beliefs, on several levels. There are quite a few religious jokes, not only directed toward Mormons, but snarkiness seems to be part of the popular discourse on religion. I was surprised how tactless some people are, and to a certain extent it helps not to take their statements too seriously. At the same time, you are going to need to be able to talk about religion in terms other than the ones that most Mormons are used to talking. Devotional language, or a language of faith, is acceptable for the mainstream Christian denominations, but not many of these people understand the devotional language of Mormonism and are suspicious of Mormonism because of certain theological claims we make. You must be multilingual.
 
Does being there challenge your testimony of the Restoration and the Book of Mormon?
Faith and testimony are always in a state of flux, even if we maintain them with a degree of certainty. YDS was challenging to my testimony, although I perhaps might not have used that language to describe my beliefs until this year (it sounds odd, I know). That is in part because I grew up a skeptical believer, naturally questioning things and being open to a multiplicity of truths. I had read the Book of Mormon and felt that it was a good book. But what gave me a testimony of the book was the ways in which my life changed after reading it. The Spirit did not say to me, this is a true book. I felt the proof (or truth) was in the pudding (my life), and I did not dedicate myself to gaining more of a witness than that. What I forgot in this formulation of my spirituality and faith, was that spiritual nourishment does not last and must be a continual practice.
 
YDS did challenge my testimony of the Restoration and the Book of Mormon, although I have already pointed out that at least my testimony of the Book of Mormon was not extremely strong at the moment that I entered YDS. What I found most challenged was my belief in God. I took a systematic theology course both semesters, in which I learned other theories of God. Because I was in a mode of questioning and really figuring out whether I did believe the claims of Mormonism, I was really shaken. The curriculum might not have the same effect on a different person. This is simply what happened to me. I began to doubt that God was the God I had worshiped for my entire life. Because I felt like I no longer knew who God was, I felt like I could not exercise my faith in the same way that I had before. I began to seriously doubt the efficacy of prayer. I was also taking Old Testament at the time, and I began to doubt the inspiration and coherence of the scriptures, any scripture. These and my naturally questioning temperament made the experience very hard. I think a different student, one who went in with a firmly established understanding of the limits of his or her own abilities to question and to find answers without the help of the Spirit would nonetheless have a similar but less dramatic experience.
 
However, my experience is not singular by any means. Students of all faith traditions grapple with matters of faith to differing degrees, and I add that the experience of divinity school probably would not be that valuable minus the difficulty and rigor. For a while I felt as though my reading of scripture had been ruined. I was used to reading almost entirely for inspiration and edification and not for themes and content and theological streams. I waded through the text as a person might wade through a swamp, becoming increasingly frustrated and tired with analyzing the swamp and discovering it was not what I had previously thought at all. But, with a little distance, I feel as though my training in scriptural exegesis has enhanced my reading irrevocably, for which I am extremely grateful.
 
What was your motivation to attend Yale (as a Mormon) and what would you expect to do after Yale?
My motivation was primarily an academic one, although one with deep spiritual roots. I have always been interested in comparative religious study with an eye of faith. The program description seemed to match my perceived academic interests (interdisciplinary study within the arts and religion). But the decision to go there was one of faith. I considered other schools but felt that YDS was the place for me. It has not been what I expected at all. I did not anticipate the intense spiritual rigor. I was okay where I was. That said, I have changed. I have become more dedicated to Mormonism–to teaching it in a way that is not only spiritually edifying but also intellectually challenging. I have become more tolerant of not-knowing. I learned the importance of the atonement, the value of Christ suffering for and with me. 
My increased knowledge has increased my faith (even though it has complicated faith in numerous ways). I now understand the interconnected nature of both much more than I did before. Faith without knowledge is dead and vice versa. We often learn through the Spirit, but the Spirit often speaks to our reason. It is difficult not to quash spiritual knowledge (not all knowledge is spiritual) but sometimes we must balance spiritual and “secular” knowledge. Divinity school has taught me the intricacies of living a faithful life.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Elizabeth,

    This is honest, poignant,and beautiful. Thank you for sharing.

    Comment by Joel — July 30, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

  2. Good counsel, Elizabeth. You achieve a difficult balance between reason and intuition.

    Comment by Ryan T — July 30, 2009 @ 4:26 pm

  3. Thank you for your generous comments, Joel and Ryan. Ryan, I’ll be interested to hear what your div school experience is like. 🙂

    Comment by Elizabeth — July 30, 2009 @ 4:38 pm

  4. Thanks, Liz, for this honest and revealing portrait of your own faith and how YDS has challenged it, confirmed it, and otherwise reshaped it. I know you’ve doubted whether you belong there at times … I’d say it’s been a good fit.

    Comment by Christopher — July 30, 2009 @ 7:18 pm

  5. This is excellent. I’m glad the “seeker” asked the questions and I’m glad you’ve shared your responses!

    Comment by Clean Cut — July 30, 2009 @ 7:24 pm

  6. Elizabeth,

    Did you find yourself drawn to any theology done by Mormons (such as Bushman or Ostler) or apologetic works in order to reconcile your issues, or was it more the result of dialogue with others?

    Comment by Kent (MC) — July 30, 2009 @ 8:06 pm

  7. Thank you for sharing, Elizabeth. What do you see yourself doing after YDS?

    Comment by Nate R — July 30, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

  8. Liz, thank you for sharing this. I echo Chris’ sentiments, glad to have you.

    Comment by Jared T — July 31, 2009 @ 2:34 am

  9. Thanks, Chris, Clean Cut, Nate R, and Jared.

    Chris and Jared, I am grateful to be part of this blog. It has been a significant place for me to work through my questions and work out my faith. I hope to add some “real” scholarship to that soon, but every time I sit down to write I write about ambivalence and about God.

    Kent, I have read some of both Bushman and Ostler, but I read them before beginning the program. Once within it, I mostly conversed with other Mormons, either within the same area of study or without. I did not seek out apologetic works so much, although I am interested in that field. Do you recommend any works in particular?

    Nate, right now I am thinking of taking off to India for a year to work in an orphanage called Pathway. But after that I would love to do a PhD program and ultimately teach at a university.

    Comment by Elizabeth — August 1, 2009 @ 1:45 pm

  10. Thanks for sharing your useful and valuable perspective.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — August 1, 2009 @ 2:27 pm


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