I understand you have been involved in collecting manuscripts and original documents that touch upon or concern the “Mormon” Church. What has that meant in your life? What perspectives has that given you?
I’ve done work in the Community of Christ Archives, which are located in the Temple in Independence, Missouri. The archives contain a number of important documents and artifacts from the early church period (1820s-1844) common to both the LDS Church and Community of Christ, including the manuscript of the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible and the Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon. It’s important to me that original documents and artifacts are preserved in publicly accessible archives so that primary scholars can refer to them for the foreseeable future.
While I do enjoy visiting historical sites to get a feeling for the place, I’m not personally very affected by the sense of touching a relic that was once touched or possessed by a historical figure. I’m much more interested in seeing the ideas and information published and made widely accessible. So while I’ve handled artifacts like David Whitmer’s seer stone, Alpheus Cutler’s sword, James Strang’s scepter, and Emma Smith’s quilts, it’s more important to me to see the source documents published in books and online, as with the excellent work of the LDS Church’s Joseph Smith Papers Project. I’ve tried to promote publishing in the field, having worked with a number of university and other academic presses, and having helped found John Whitmer Books.
You have blogged some. How has that affected your perception of things? Do you have a favorite blog?
I’ve done a fair amount of writing within the Mormon bloggernacle over the years and plan to continue for years to come. I like the medium as a way of succinctly treating a single, discreet topic and also as a way of bringing more personal and less academic reflections into writing. Blogs also have the ability to reach much larger audiences than most print books or journals — I think my blog posts on the Milk and Strippings story and on the Spaulding Theory have probably attracted more readers than anything else I’ve ever written. I appreciate the capacity to share ideas with a large, engaged audience.
Although I have blogged on and off for years, I very rarely read blogs and therefore don’t have a favorite. I’m somewhat old-fashioned as I spend most of my reading time with actual books. Similarly, although I’ve participated in a fair number of podcasts, I don’t really listen to podcasts much myself. I am almost always listening to recordings from “The Great Courses” series, which are topical lectures from university professors that I heartily recommend.
What do you believe religion and the gospel (with a small or a large “g”) should be? What is the core doctrine you believe?
I don’t believe in doctrine. For me, points of doctrine are simply elaborations of a creedal form of belief (which I think the early Restoration was correct to reject, at least nominally). Teaching via doctrine — having people memorize “answers” — was important in an era when the overwhelming majority of the population did not have access to university-level education and the tools of critical thinking. While doctrine had (and has) its place, I believe that this kind of teaching and thinking is inimical to the spiritual development of people who have received university education.
The inability to adapt away from a doctrinal perspective is leading (or has led) most traditional organized religions within Western Civilization to lose their relevance (the LDS Church included). However, I believe that organized religion can still be very relevant as a forum and network for the open exploration of meaning for individuals and communities, as well as for charitable and social action (which is what I believe “religion” should be).
The “gospel” can be many things, but to me the core of the gospel taught by Jesus is radical, equal inclusion of all persons in community (regardless of such distinctions as income, ethnicity, race, gender, and sexual orientation) and radical rejection of accepted social norms, customs, standards, with the goal of living life meaningfully as individuals in community. The fact that people who call themselves “Christians” — almost instantly after Jesus’ death — adopted petty, self-righteous, Pharisaical rules, and are today unrepentant in their bigotry is a great (and horribly unfortunate) irony.
What rule or commandment do you think is important for everyone to consider?
I think it’s important for people not to be overly concerned with rules or (so-called) “commandments.” Although we can’t know for certain which preserved sayings are authentic, the likely historical Jesus modeled very good advice here, which is to continuously re-think and overturn petty rules.
Rather than slavishly follow the commandments of scripture, leader, or social customs to the letter, Jesus advised, “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” I think the first admonition here should be read in its negative formulation, i.e., place no “idols” between yourself and the Divine. I think people ought especially to be concerned against idolizing leaders, scripture, doctrine, and social norms. If you imagine that a leader has a closer personal connection to God than you yourself have, and that a leader has authority or keys to speak on God’s behalf to you, then you are idolizing or worshiping that leader. Similarly, if you imagine that a text has universal authority to command your life, you are worshiping that text. The second admonition here is to love your neighbor as yourself, which (in my view) should be read as going further than the “golden rule” axiom of treating others as you would like them to treat you. Instead, I believe we should endeavor to treat others (inasmuch as possible) as they themselves would like to be treated. For centuries in North America, we have been living in a culture that focuses on the individual self; but I believe that focus obscures the reality that individual identity is formed through meaningful interaction with community. The fact that we’ve been dismantling our local communities and isolating ourselves from our neighbors has resulted in enormous dissatisfaction for individuals in real terms.
Do you have any other major projects or ideas? Where do you see yourself headed?
I have completely committed myself to what I believe is my life’s calling. This project is to help people equip themselves with the tools to live meaning-filled lives as individuals, in local communities, and in the world as a whole. For me, this involves helping people see their traditional conceptions and practices of organized religion (which are rooted in our own particular time and place in history) in a much broader cultural and historical perspective. I believe that honoring our heritage without being enslaved to its particulars, allows us to unshackle ourselves from arbitrary bounds, while retaining the better part of our inheritance. Within the Restoration movement, my work involves helping people of my shared heritage join or create inclusive congregations, where individuals are not kept from leadership roles or marginalized for such reasons as gender and gender identity. With this idea in mind, I helped found Community of Christ’s “Latter-day Seekers” program. (If you’re interesting in talking to me about this program, the best way to connect is to friend me on Facebook or you can visit Latter-daySeekers.org.)
Even more broadly, it’s important to me that my own immediate community is actively engaged in improving our surrounding society. As a pastor of an urban congregation and as someone who lives in the heart of a major city, I can’t help but be aware of the problems of homelessness and affordable housing. For that reason, I volunteer as president of the board of our church’s social housing charity, which helps provide housing for extremely impoverished individuals, including those with mental health conditions who might otherwise be left homeless.
If you could give one piece of advice to our readers, what would it be?
Life isn’t about memorizing a list of simple answers and obeying leaders or a set of arbitrary rules. Life (and therefore meaningful religion) is a continual process of learning and application of that learning; a process that involves openness to reassessment, frequent repentance, and continual change.