Sunday, March 16, 2008

A Sense of History

My life these past months has been full and beautiful. Our relationship with our foster son continues to grow in surprising and interesting ways (about which I plan to blog more in coming weeks). I love my teaching and my students. I find myself entering a new stage of spiritual growth, where I am consolidating and working out more and more of the gritty details of being both gay and partnered and a testimony-bearing Latter-day Saint.

I've also had to be more efficient and disciplined than I've ever been before in my life in order to be a good foster dad, a partner, a provider, and a teacher. My workload at the law firm has gradually been increasing, which has made it more challenging to accomplish everything I need to accomplish there and not end up working a lot of overtime that would erode my time with my family. And every single spare moment that I am not at work, at church, or spending time with my family, I am doing class work: preparing lecture notes, reading, grading papers. This hasn't left much time for anything else, and my blog and other writing projects have unfortunately had to take a back seat. I'm rewarding myself today with some blog time, because -- due to "Reading Week" at the seminary and "Holy Week" this coming week -- I have two weeks off from teaching, and have managed to work ahead a couple of weeks. (I plan to be back in full force after my course is done in early May.)

In the meantime, I wanted to share some of the questions I have been wrestling with as part of the work of teaching a course on American Religious History. It has been important to me, in my teaching about the history of the different faiths that have shaped American life, to make some effort to represent each faith tradition as members of that faith tradition would like to be represented. This is always a challenge, something that, as I have told my students, cannot be approached without "prayer and fasting" (i.e., lot's of humility). In a few weeks I will be faced with another, slightly different challenge: representing my own faith tradition.

I have chosen to focus on the concept of Restoration as the organizing theme for looking at Mormonism. I first want to look at dissident Christian groups throughout the Middle Ages, the Reformation, and the American Great Awakenings who hungered for a restoration of primitive Christianity, as it was taught and practiced by Christ himself. Then I want to discuss LDS Church history within that context, as a group of people who gathered around the prophet Joseph because they saw his theophanies and revelations as proof of the kind of restoration that Christians had longed for for centuries. More importantly, Joseph's followers experienced theophanies and received revelations of their own confirming the truthfulness of Joseph's experience. They experienced the power of God in startling ways in the Church Joseph established, and saw this as proof indeed that the Heavens had once again been opened.

I believe this focus on restoration and modern-day revelation reflects the central categories in which most Latter-day Saints today understand their faith, and is also true to the best historical scholarship available in Mormon studies.

I do not plan to focus a lot of attention on one of my major concerns, homosexuality and Mormonism. I will address it somewhat as I discuss Mormon beliefs about the family (as I will also address issues related to women and the Church). But I have also told my students that I believe true learning requires us to "get personal," to acknowledge how our life experience has shaped our perspectives, and I have made it clear that my students are welcome to ask me any questions they want about my perspectives as a gay man and as a believing Mormon. So I suspect it will come up.

I would love to hear what you think about how I plan to frame my discussion of Mormon history. I've posted a draft of my lecture notes, and welcome thoughts or feedback. Do you agree with my approach? What themes would you focus on if you were presented with the task of teaching a group of people about your faith?

3 comments:

GeckoMan said...

John,

Great ideas and notes.

As I look for gaps, the only thing I see that is missing is some discussion of 'the culture' of being LDS. Good or bad, we exist as a rather tight-knit, uniform, 'family of saints', especially on the local level. I have visited congregations in several countries, and find it remarkably the same. We have music, art, literature, etc. that is uniquely ours. We have a sense of duty and mission in taking care of one another--a vigorous welfare system, multiple callings and home/visiting teaching. We generally comply with a set of cultural norms and expectations that are positively Mormon. And there are many customs of the world which we are counseled to avoid, so this observance also sets us apart. There are ways employed to monitor and control one another, such as home teaching, ward council and the temple recommend interview. All of these things comprise a unique culture. To talk about what it means today to be Mormon in a practical or cultural sense, as well as spiritual or philosophical sense, would be worthwhile, in my view.

J G-W said...

Geckoman - thanks for the feedback! I figured I could count on you!

That's partly what I'm trying to get at in my discussion of LDS "praxis."

I'm also hoping that students of mine who attended church with me, when they report to the class will help other students get a sense of that.

Bill McA said...

John,

I cannot WAIT to find out the reaction of your ward to students of yours coming to your wonderful ward. Please keep us posted!

Bill