Everything I need to know I’m learning in Divinity School

By September 9, 2008

So I decided to save my textual analysis of The Backslider for next time and write about my current experience instead.

As I said in my bio, I’m a first-year student at Yale Divinity School. And this life-move came as much of a surprise to me. I never planned to go to divinity school and even now it seems extraordinary that I am here, where Jonathan Edwards was the “Dean of Discipline” in his day and counseled against “unseasonable and evil night walkings” (what?); where there is a room in the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle called the Revised Standard Version room, not as a polite homage but as a dedication to the work that actually took place there; where chapel is not a sedate occasion but a wonderfully planned liturgical event, combining hymn traditions from around the world with group prayers and divine scripture readings and sermons.

There is great denominational fervor and interesting interdenominational mixing. I have met a Catholic Buddhist; an ex-Evangelical Baptist turned ex-Methodist turned Quaker; and yes, other Mormons. One of my first mornings here I attended Episcopal morning prayer and holy Eucharist with my roommate. I loved the collect, the group readings from the Book of Common Prayer, and the sermon. But when it came time for the congregation to receive the Eucharist, I found myself glued to my seat. I wanted nothing more than to fully participate in the worship that was taking place. I did and didn’t feel like I would be worshiping falsely if I partook of the Eucharist. I wanted to be part of the body of all Christian saints, not just the saints of my own Mormon tradition. At the same time, I felt somehow as though I would be betraying my own tradition and somehow be disrespecting the Episcopal tradition at the same time.

I felt as though I was completely at sea, a feeling I rarely have in my Mormon meetings or a feeling that I try to ignore as much as possible. But that feeling still persists. I am in a boat without oars; I lack the knowledge I feel I need to participate fully in the religious conversations I have been having. I also feel torn between conveying my own experience in the LDS church versus representing the church as it claims to be (and as I believe it is, for the most part). I have a great desire to share and a great revulsion at sharing my “testimony”–how to strike a balance between the academic and the devotee? Sharing is what I have been trained to do.

For the first week here I felt betrayed by my own religious education, betrayed by my casual attention to learning the language of comparative religious studies. I also felt fear, fear that I might sacrifice my belief, that I might not speak up, that I would be forced to tear down my belief and then build it up again. But these are the struggles of the Mormon intellectual. Many have gone through or are going through similar struggles. I know this. I did not expect to have a settled experience here, but I didn’t expect to have such an unsettling experience either.

At convocation my advisor Peter Hawkins gave the address. It was more like a sermon. The subject of his sermon was Jacob wrestling with God. He quoted the story from Genesis 32:22-32 from the NRSV:

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. Therefore to this day the Israelites do not eat the thigh muscle that is on the hip socket, because he struck Jacob on the hip socket at the thigh muscle.

My favorite point he made from the exegesis that followed was that Jacob prevailed for a little while in the struggle but that God wounded him. And he carried that wound for the rest of his life, a reminder, a silent goad, a mark. Wrestling with God cannot but change us. And with that change comes a new name, a new life, a new walk with God. I asked God to lead me into a land I did not know, and he has done so. The transformation I undergo will be the result of a mighty wrestle with God. But as many of you know, it is worth the wounding I will receive.

Finally, lest I sound too pessimistic, despite the difficulty and the yet-to-be-realized fruits of my wounding, I am falling in love with God.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. “But as many of you know, it is worth the wounding I will receive.” It is worth that and then some. Enjoy the journey, as painful as it will sometimes be.

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 9, 2008 @ 10:13 pm

  2. How many other LDSs are studying with you at Yale’s Divinity School?

    Comment by RG — September 9, 2008 @ 10:24 pm

  3. Liz, this post exemplifies what I was trying to convey when I complimented your unique ability to combine intellect and humility. Thanks.

    Comment by Christopher — September 9, 2008 @ 10:36 pm

  4. Very touching post; thank you.

    As a side note, I was visiting Yale two weeks ago, and I very much fell in love with the campus. What a place to fall in love with God.

    Comment by Ben — September 9, 2008 @ 10:41 pm

  5. You got the wrong blog. JInst is for the Mormon History grad school dorks, and FPR is for the Bible/Religion grad school dorks 🙂

    Comment by Nitsav — September 9, 2008 @ 10:55 pm

  6. Nitsav, we’re trying something new here. 🙂 And besides, Elizabeth’s research interests include American religious history, so it works anyway.

    Comment by Christopher — September 9, 2008 @ 11:00 pm

  7. Elizabeth is forming something there at Yale that will connect Mormons with the rest of the sacred world in everlasting bonds. Good thing she is such an eloquent writer. We wait with anticipation.

    Comment by LJD — September 10, 2008 @ 7:42 am

  8. RG, there are six Mormons at YDS right now, which is a pretty high number compared with years past (3-4).

    Nitsav, Karl Rahner says this about theology: “Theology is an historical science. This does not merely mean that it has to do with ‘historical matter.’ And it does not exclude the transcendental element in theology. It means primarily that theology is and remains perpetually linked to the historical event of salvation which took place once and for all. . . . The historical is not just the starting-point of a deductive theology, as was assumed in the Middle Ages, but the very object of theology.” (Encyclopedia of Theology, 1690)

    Perhaps a feeble justification for my inclusion on the blog, but a justification nonetheless. I appreciate being allowed into this circle of Mormon historians! Maybe something Shakerish next time. . . .

    LJD, I appreciate your comment immensely!

    Comment by Elizabeth — September 10, 2008 @ 8:20 am

  9. Excellent post, and I compliment you on your ability to diffuse the skepticism many LDS have about graduate school in religion. Best wishes in your journey.

    Comment by TT — September 10, 2008 @ 8:30 am

  10. Well done, and a pleasure to read. You make me woder if I missed my calling, and should have gone to divinity school. Thank you.

    Maybe something Shakerish next time

    Yes, please. How about the aforementioned video? 🙂

    Comment by BruceC — September 10, 2008 @ 8:52 am

  11. I mean “wonder”

    Comment by BruceC — September 10, 2008 @ 8:53 am

  12. Elizabeth, thank you. You’ve beautifully put into words many of the emotions that I’ve been feeling over the last few weeks as I start my program at TCU. For me, I’ve been so used to talking about Mormonism in academic language with other academic Mormons (and having it sound normal), but now that I’m discussing Mormonism with non-Mormons, the academic language sounds hollow and overly-critical. My highschool self, who naturally sought to discuss the church with non-Mormons, but who has been on sabbatical for the last 8 years in Provo, wants to come out again, while my academic self does not want to rethink how I do things. I both eagerly anticipate and dread the week in my Jacksonian seminar where we discuss Mormons. Keep us updated on your progress.

    Comment by David G. — September 10, 2008 @ 9:17 am

  13. there are six Mormons at YDS right now, which is a pretty high number compared with years past (3-4).

    What kinds of things are others studying?

    Comment by RG — September 10, 2008 @ 11:13 am

  14. BruceC, it’s never too late to go to divinity school!

    David G., yes! I know exactly what you mean. You put it better and more succinctly than I did! Good luck in your journey.

    RG, we’re all Masters of Arts in Religion. One is doing Biblical Literature, one is doing Second Temple Judaism, another is doing Early Christianity, and I am not sure about the emphases of the other two besides me.

    It is interesting that no Mormons I know have done a Master’s of Divinity, which is obviously more vocationally driven toward becoming a pastor or minister. But why can’t Mormons be pastors, or at least learn to preach? I actually really want to take a preaching class.

    Comment by Elizabeth — September 10, 2008 @ 6:26 pm

  15. As a Mormon organist formerly employed by an Episcopalian congregation, I think I understand the connection and yearnings you describe — as well as some of the same dissonance — about participating fully at the Eucharist. Perhaps some of the mental struggle has to do with, as you said, a respect for their Eucharist and what they say it means (i.e., “a sacrifice anew”).

    Anyhow, I fully support sharing in the blessings of different worship traditions. And perhaps as you struggle through grad school, it would be helpful to remember that just as you are benefitted by understanding other worship traditions, other students with this same attitude will also benefit and be enlightened by understanding Mormon worship, through you.

    Best to you.

    Comment by Hunter — September 11, 2008 @ 12:55 am

  16. There are a few MDiv LDS – you will find them in the military and in hospitals as chaplains. Not a ton of them, but they exist.

    Comment by MTN — September 11, 2008 @ 2:34 pm

  17. And I have ALWAYS wondered: Can a Mormon Woman become a chaplain with a MDiv? I realize that the Armed Services and many hospitals would say, Yes….but would the church (who after all must recommend the Chaplain) do so?

    Comment by Cynthia — September 11, 2008 @ 3:29 pm

  18. For one LDS MDiv who’s a chaplain, see this post and comments from two LDS chaplains and the blog of one of them here http://chaplainkline.blogspot.com/

    Comment by Ben — September 11, 2008 @ 4:04 pm

  19. Cynthia, I’ve known two LDS women who were hospital chaplains.

    Comment by TT — September 11, 2008 @ 4:17 pm

  20. I think I lost a comment to the spam filter.

    Admin.: You’re lucky we like you around here, Ben. I had to drudge past some not-so-acceptable spam comments to get to yours. ;

    Comment by Ben — September 11, 2008 @ 5:03 pm

  21. And let me make it clear that the “spammer” Ben is a different person from JI’s Ben 🙂

    Comment by Ben — September 11, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

  22. Elizabeth, I think you made the right decision about abstaining from taking their Eucharist. I made the same decision whenever I attended chapel while a graduate student at Oxford. For me it had more to do with respect for what the Eucharist means to them — i.e., I was aware of what they thought of Mormons generally (that we’re not Christians and actually even worse than heathens, in a certain sense) and that they might genuinely believe that I, as a Mormon, would be desecrating their most sacred religious practice by partaking. I wanted to enjoy the religious experience of their devotional services without giving offense and so have never partaken, whether while attending Anglican services at Oxford or Catholic, Protestant/Lutheran (Evangelisch), or Baptist/Evangelical services elsewhere around the world.

    Comment by john f. — September 12, 2008 @ 12:07 pm

  23. hi elisabeth
    regarding religious denominational and inter-denominational fervour and such, i very much should like to draw your attention to a useful set of workbooks under the name of The Way of the Spirit (www.thewayofthespirit.com) going under the worktitles of The Call and the Cross, Times of Refreshing, The Heirs of the Prophets, My Lord and My God, and other short study titles

    The (New) way of the Spirit is related to the use of language in Romans 7:6 and Hebrews 10: 15-22 in the English language versions.

    God bless you in your work and study
    How do I come to you? a standing Google inquiry regarding Chaplain Kline (http://chaplainkline.blogspot.com/) after a bbc world radio broadcast (prob. early this year, or was it last year?)
    Regards, Harry

    Comment by Harry de Boom — September 13, 2008 @ 10:45 am

  24. Everyone! Thank you for your responses! They are helping me see that many Mormons are going through similar things. I appreciate the support and the insights you have offered.

    Comment by Elizabeth — September 13, 2008 @ 11:46 am

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