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.