Last week I decided (very last minute) to attend the Sunstone Symposium for the first time. Sunstone is an academic style journal that critically examines Mormonism. The journal sponsors symposia across the country with their flagship event being held in Salt Lake City once a year.
Over the past six months, I have attempted to begin reading some historical and analytical books as part of determining my beliefs and identity within Mormonism. These texts range from Women and Authority edited by Maxine Hanks to Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith by Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippetts Avery and even included the difficult reading of Man, His Origin and Destiny by Joseph Fielding Smith. I felt like attending Sunstone would be a natural extension of the readings I have been doing.
I was surprised at the number of discussions and talks I heard about finding your own story, determining your identity, and living authentically. Within this larger group of people, I wondered where I fit. In his Sun Talk, Mormon Expressions podcast host John Larsen made a point that people are more satisfied with their identity when they choose an overarching culture that makes many identity choices for them. He illustrated this with an analogy of buying yogurt at the grocery store. People tend to be happier buying one of two yogurt flavors rather than one of twenty. Your chance of picking wrong is lower in the first scenario. When you pick (traditional) Mormonism, you are picking to be x, y, and z. Now that I know I don’t agree with x or z I have to decide what they will be instead.
The sessions I chose to attend at Sunstone were largely related to figuring out what x and z are for me. I went to sessions about God to get me thinking about who God really is. I have always been a little confused about God as Heavenly Father and God as Jesus Christ and God as Heavenly Mother. Who is who? Who is talking? Why can’t we talk about or pray to Heavenly Mother? One session discussed how God changed through Joseph Smith’s translations and in another the speakers discussed the possibilities of diverse sexuality within Mormonism’s framework of God.
Unsurprisingly, the session I identified best with was one on the history and relationship of Mormonism and science. As a scientist, I am completely invested in the statements of the early prophets and apostles that claimed scientific truth as one of their own. James E. Talmage has engraved on his headstone that “within the gospel of Jesus Christ there is room and place for every truth thus far learned by man or yet to be made known.” I was surprised to learn how Mormons in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries intertwined Mormonism and science and were very interested in pursuing scientific careers. BYU Emeritus Professor Duane Jefferey cited a study published in the journal Science in 1974 tracing the social origins of American scientists from the early 1900s to the 1960s. Utah was the number one state producing scientists up until about 1950s and since then it has dropped to 29.
In addition to these academic style sessions, there are many discussion oriented and spiritually uplifting sessions. In one particularly poignant example, a session called “Why We Stay,” had four amazing people tell their stories. It felt like what I want testimony meeting to feel like. In completely different styles, the four speakers gave wonderful expressions of why they stay in the Mormon church. Wendy Williams Montgomery spoke so powerfully on how she stays to support the LGBT youth like her son that she got a standing ovation.
Growing up in Utah, I had little to no interest in studying Mormonism. The way I learned about it in seminary and at church was dry and boring. Since I have become a Mormon feminist and discovered the awesome body of literature available beyond official church sources, I have begun to love reading about, thinking about, and discussing Mormonism. Sunstone was a great place to do that. Check it out: http://issuu.com/sunstonesymposium/docs/final-program-sm/0.