“Generosity without orthodoxy is nothing, but orthodoxy without generosity is worse than nothing.” Hans Frei
Orthodoxy. Fundamentalist Orthodoxy. Radical Orthodoxy. Unorthodoxy. Orthopraxy. Heterodoxy.
Labels exist because they are useful. They help us discover and describe ourselves and find community. They often become a part of our identity and how we relate to others and the world; but there is always a limit and like most things have their drawbacks. I’m probably coming up on ten years of being on an unexpected faith journey. I’ve used a lot of different labels as my path has taken me in different directions. I described myself as orthoprax for a while (which indicates correct practice as opposed to orthodoxy’s correct beliefs) because all of my physical actions reflect orthodoxy within the LDS church: I hold a temple recommend. I don’t drink coffee. I go to church weekly. We have family scriptures. I plant a garden and can and dehydrate produce. A few years into my faith shift, my mom incredulously commented “Kris, in almost every physical way you are still a Molly Mormon!” I kept with orthoprax until the first time I heard the term “Generous Orthodoxy.” I was listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History Podcast five years ago (transcript found here). Hans Frei is a theologian who developed the term. As Gladwell describes it,
“To be orthodox is to be committed to tradition. To be generous, as Frei defines it, is to be open to change. But Frei thought the best way to live our lives was to find the middle ground because orthodoxy without generosity leads to blindness and generosity without orthodoxy is shallow and empty. One of the hardest things in the world is to find that balance. Not just for those pursuing a life of faith but for anyone interested in making their world better.”
The story Gladwell told is of Chester Wenger, a lifelong Mennonite pastor. He was nearly 100 when Gladwell spoke with him regarding a letter he’d written in 2014, “An open letter to my beloved church,” which had gone viral. Mennonites consider “Jesus is the center of our faith, community is the center of our lives, reconciliation is the center of our work.” I think our tight-knit small community could relate to the context of what happened. Wenger had a gay son who had been excommunicated from their faith–when gay marriage was legalized in Pennsylvania in 2014 his son and his partner asked him to officiate their wedding. He did so and reported it to the leadership of his church himself; he was disciplined and his credentials were lifted–what I assume is equal to the removing of priesthood ordination. He took the discipline without complaint. The letter he wrote after this happened is a plea for his beloved church to rethink their practice of excluding lgbtq+ people :
“The church we belong to has the power to bind and loose. Today’s church, much like the early Christians, has the Spirit-given power to rethink whether or not ‘circumcision’ will continue to define who is in and who is out.” His letter is really worth a read. Gladwell highlights this story because, “That’s generous Chester Wenger, open to seeing the world in new ways. But there’s no anger in his letter. Alongside the generosity, is orthodoxy, respect for the body he is trying to heal.”
My LDS Generosity
In the last year a group of LDS members have labeled themselves Radically Orthodox: “orthodox” in a way that promotes “fierce fidelity” to the church and it’s leaders, yet wants to be “radical” enough to explore the possibilities beyond what is familiar. They hope to show civility to those they disagree with and be charitable while “rejecting the excesses of progressivism.” My interpretation is they hope to position themselves between the rude fundamentalism of DezNat and the loose “eat drink and be merry” attitude they perceive amongst progressive Mormons.
I suppose I’m someone with a platform that hopes for progressive changes in the LDS Church and community. Honestly, I see where some of the worry that excessive progressivism brings — if these aren’t the rules then there are no rules. Many of us progressive Mormons in the church experienced a ~Certainty Crisis~ that left us with a lot of ambiguity. My “generosity” often plays out agnostically–I don’t believe any human knows for certain what the plan of salvation has in store for lgbtq+ folks (or insert a number of other church issues and topics). I sustain my leaders by loving and supporting them (wishing for their success, not making personal attacks) even when I disagree. I grant them grace in a position I do not envy; it is not my stewardship to steer this ship, thank goodness. They will be the ones held accountable for the decisions they make in their position–it’s a heavy responsibility. While I sustain them, I do not believe they need “fierce fidelity;” my generosity rejects the act of staking that position.
I have seen the brokenness that has come from fierce fidelity in the past re lgbtq+ issues. Electroshock therapy via BYU in the 1970s. Peers from my own generation of gay Mormons were told to marry women in the temple and promised all would be well and happily ever after. We have all seen the split families and divorces that have occurred as the end result of so many of these practices and promises. It was incredibly painful and harmful to so many. As for our current teachings, I imagine swapping the normativity for a moment: for those who are completely straight, imagine being taught that your straightness is inherently sinful and a temporary challenge like alcoholism; you will naturally despise and reject an integral part of who God made you to be–and also you must remain alone and without companionship or else enter a gay relationship for the rest of your life. I cannot conceive a mentally healthy life being possible in these circumstances. Based on my personal experiences with the issues, I sincerely and deeply believe gay marriages to be just as holy as mine. In my own words from my temple recommend interview “yes I believe in the law of chastity, I just don’t believe gay marriages are against it.” I cannot see generosity in requiring “fierce fidelity” to a topic that we only have a track record of causing pain and brokenness. Fierce fidelity on this topic, whether civil or not, is a two-edged sword, cutting down the most vulnerable among us.
My LDS Orthodoxy
There’s been an uptick in online exmormons, both lgbtq+ and not, targeting progressive mormons for their continued activity and the complicity in harm that is accompanied by any type of support for the institution. And there is no question LGBTQ+ folks are harmed here. I think we should wrestle with the question of complicity more than we do. In my opinion it takes more than a rainbow flag and telling lgbtq+ members you love them to lessen harm done and be in solidarity with them. But what to do with my orthodoxy, then?
I do hope for changes, but this is not why I stay. I stay because I have a deep and abiding love for Mormonism; the Mormonism of Maxwell Institute, of Black LDS Legacy, and Mormon studies. I believe God lives and Jesus is my Savior. On days I’m having a hard time with KNOWING, in the words of prophetess Rachel Held Evans, “The Story of Jesus Is the Story I’m Willing to Risk Being Wrong About.” Sometimes I want to shout from the rooftops “True to the Faith,” and sometimes I see my friends leave the church and ask them to live their best exmo lives by proxy for me because living in the tension of being a doubt-filled believer is not for the faint of heart (And when lgbtq+ members leave I support the path to mental health and more happiness that I believe currently exists outside our walls). I believe participating in community is a refining process that makes me a better person. I believe keeping covenants is important and has power in my earthly relationships and eternal life.
My LDS Generous Orthodoxy: Rexburg’s First Community Pride
I think many Mormons are worried about condoning behavior that may effect someone’s eternal outcome so they think true love is not remaining silent about the wrongness of others’ behavior. In the words of Charlie Bird from this recent excellent Faith Matters podcast, “that’s never helped me once and if anything it pushes me farther away.” I believe the only way people will come unto Christ is if they feel the love of Him through us. I do not believe people are brought to Christ by telling them their lives are sinful while remaining silent about my own sins. I believe living the gospel requires us to create goodness and beauty and healing in the world. As I navigate my own spiritual journey I attempt to find my own equilibrium of balancing the tension between generosity and orthodoxy, I have come to choose to err on the side of generosity; if I have to have the consequences attached to loving too much instead of loving too little, I will accept them. What I have seen from too little is the opposite of healing.
One of the things I’ve become involved with Flourish Point, an LGBTQ+ Resource Center in Rexburg. We provide subsidized therapy, community education, support services, and events for LGBTQ+ and their families in Rexburg. In March we raised over $15,000 that enabled us to hire our first full-time therapist and begin planning Rexburg’s first Pride Celebration. We started planning with the hope of having a few hundred people attend, a few weeks before I was warning fellow committee members to not be surprised if attendance breaks 500. On the day of Rexburg Pride we were overwhelmed by over 1000 people (some estimates had us around 1500).
My three responsibilities I took for that day were to 1 arrange an alumni luncheon 2 be on de-escalation duty with attendees and protestors and 3 get as many lgbtq+ flags in people’s hands as possible. As I checked people in for the alumni luncheon I recognized some former students who walked up to the table to get their nametag who were visibly emotional. Some told me they cried as they drove into town in disbelief that this was really happening, or as they saw rainbow flags line the street along Porter Park. I checked in couples who were fostering children or in adoption proceedings. After the luncheon a woman approached me, thanked me, hugged me, and told me she’d been kicked out of Ricks College 30 years ago for being gay. She and her wife drove hours to Rexburg to attend and she said shared that this was incredibly healing experience for her.
Right before the luncheon we received news that protestors would be in attendance. We had no idea where or when or how many of them there would be. Earlier someone in town had put stickers from Patriot Front, a white supremacist group, on our public posters. We had hired private security when the police department reached out to us, they also had received reports from groups that wanted to protest, some from as far away as Texas and they asked if they could provide security for free this year to help keep everyone’s safety. I was worried about vandalism as much as conflict and protest, and at one point before the event began I went to observe the pride flags we staked by the busy road. As I stood there for less than two minutes a student in a sports car yelled at me “you all are f*** and I hope you kill yourselves!” I had only been publicly associated with queerness in Rexburg for two minutes; I thought about what lgbtq+ BYUI students live with: these are their roommates, ward members, classmates, and coworkers. One student’s feedback is that in all their time in Rexburg, attending Pride was the first and only time they’ve felt completely safe. Can you imagine coming to a place that claims to be Zion-like and living every moment in fear? Gratefully the dozen protestors who did show up set up shop across the street from the park where we could redirect people away from engaging with them pretty easily. I was able to bring over some snacks and drinks for them later in the event with some of my fellow Flourish Point board members.
A common question students had prior to the event is they were wanting 3×5 flags, there was nowhere in town where they could buy them, so at the last moment I asked a friend if they could bring some up from Provo. For lgbtq+ youth who have been socialized to despise themselves, I’d like to be a part of a message that they are gorgeously, lovingly made exactly how God planned them to be. They are not to be tolerated, they are to be celebrated. They are deeply loved, regardless of the choices they make in navigating their own spiritual journey. Helping get flags into some of those hands was a spiritual moment for me. Helping lgbtq+ youth in Rexburg feel unconditionally loved is a part of my discipleship. I now label myself as Generously Orthodox. I don’t know what our leaders and our organization will do; I do know what I will do, in the words of Glennon Doyle, that is the next right thing; and like Chester Wegner, if the day ever comes I have a disciplinary consequence for it, I’ll take that chance.
Post Script: There is a best-selling author and progressive Christian, Glennon Doyle who is married to the soccer star Abby Wombach. A few days ago they released a podcast exploring “queer freedom,” in which Abby discusses growing up in a conservative Christian church and the damage that has stayed with her from those teachings and studies that have shown the mental health issues that come from holding both identities. It’s notable because 1 one of the callers who asks them a question is from the LDS church and 2 they discuss the circumstances of when and why you leave and stay in institutions. She mentions that the only way someone can support the lives of lgbtq+ folks while staying in a church that harms them is to not stay silent–“we must work toward create a world in which people don’t have to throw away what they need from a place because we have allowed it to become so unhospitable for them… Places where people can be both held and free.” Many members may be uncomfortable with the experiences (also language) shared there but I think it’s a really good experience to listen to queer Christians directly.