A growing number of people claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” A Pew Research study just release this week is telling. The number of people who identify with or participate in religion is in steep decline across the board.
But can the reverse also be true for some people. What if you’re religious but not particularly spiritual? What if you find deep meaning and satisfaction in your religious practice, but don’t experience spirituality like many of your fellow congregants?
That is just one of the fascinating topics that come up as Rosalynde Welch sits down for a Conversation with Terryl Givens, the latest videocast episode in the Faith Matters Podcast, hosted by Terryl Givens and created in collaboration with the BYU’s Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Studies.
ROSALYNDE FRANDSEN WELCH is an independent scholar in St. Louis, Missouri and a member of the Maxwell Institute’s advisory board. She is currently finishing a book on the Book of Ether for the Maxwell Institute’s “Brief Theological Introductions series on the Book of Mormon.”
BLAIR HODGES: Welcome to Maxwell Institute Conversations—special videocast episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast hosted by Terryl Givens and created in collaboration with Faith Matters Foundation.
Is faith a choice? Does faith come naturally to some more than others? Terryl Givens and Rosalynde Welch have written and spoken on these questions, and each of them bring interesting perspectives to the discussion. Rosalynde Welch is an independent scholar in St. Louis, Missouri, and a member of the Maxwell Institute’s advisory board. And she joins Terryl Givens in this final episode of our special series of Maxwell Institute Conversations.
TERRYL GIVENS: Hello and welcome to another installment of “Faith Matters Foundations Conversations.” I’m the host, Terryl Givens and this is a podcast series that is devoted to the exploring the Mormon experience—the lived experience of Mormonism as a catalyst to the abundant life and the public good. And today our guest is Rosalynde Welch, and Rosalynde we’re delighted to have you with us today. Thank you for coming.
ROSALYNDE WELCH: My immense pleasure.
GIVENS: Well, we always start off—the first half or so of the episode we like to get to know you better and talk a little bit about your background and your faith journey. And sometimes the best way to get a kind of bird’s eye view of your life as a whole is to ask you to project into the future and imagine what kinds of things will be said in your obituary. If that’s not too morbid a way to introduce biography.
WELCH: “Well clearly, she was just stunningly beautiful and amazing brilliant” right? [laughs] I mean, that’ll pretty much sum it up.
GIVENS: And when we get to line three…
WELCH: My obituary…You know, I hope it covers the basics. She loved her family, she loved her neighbors, she took care of her neighbors, she took care of her family. She took care of a beautiful garden. She climbed a lot of amazing mountains. And I hope it says something about a book or two in there. I’m still working on that part.
GIVENS: Okay, good! Good. Maybe we’ll come back to that later because I’d like to know what projects you’re working on at present. You are, I guess, best known to those who have any kind of connection with Mormon studies or Mormon scholarship as an independent scholar. You are somebody that I refer to frequently as a role model, especially for not just young women, but for a number of individuals who don’t find themselves as full-time academics but want to know “Is there a place for me to make a contribution to the conversation?” And you continue to do that beautifully and articulately.
But I would like to turn first of all to talk a little bit about your spiritual history and spiritual trajectory. I’d like to begin by quoting the great poet, William Wordsworth, who talked about the “spots of time” that all of us find in our personal narratives if we go back to earliest memories of childhood and move forward. These pivotal or seminal moments that he thinks give shape, give complexion, to our identities, our spiritual natures. Can you think of a couple formative moments that would help us to understand who you are and why you are the way you are?
WELCH: Well, I was raised in Southern California. The oldest of a big Mormon family in the 1970s style. I’m the oldest of eleven children. So my childhood was very much defined by that nexus of place. You know, beloved backyard and home and family. My parents, their influence on me was you know incalculable and church service as well. It was always a part of us growing up. If I were to think back to particular moments…you know, images come to mind. I have this really clear memory of looking at my mother’s hands and they were so beautiful to me. And in my memory they’re still so beautiful. She had the most beautiful oval nails and my nails have never been shaped in such a beautiful way and yet, the veins on the back of her hand stood out more than on my hand and that really—you know, I noted that as a child. And that image of my mother’s hands is one that comes back to me often as I myself age and get older and as I’ve become a mother. I think it meant something about the loving care that I experienced as a child. And that really shaped the way that I understand what it means to be in relation and to be a family in particular. I praise my mother and my father and may get emotion, but their loving care and devotion to us at the same time that they contributed in a dynamic and vibrant way to the communities that we were a part of certainly was the most grounding part of my upbringing.
So, I majored in English at Brigham Young University. I served a mission in Portugal. And then I went back to graduate school at the University of California at San Diego and I studied early modern English literature. So that’s sixteenth-century English literature.
GIVENS: Now, at what point did envision that you would never actually be using that degree in the classroom. And did that provoke any kind of crisis or doubt?
WELCH: Yeah! I’m fortunate that it didn’t. It’s didn’t. I am a nerd and I love school. I truly—Graduate school was some of the best years of my life because I really love the experience. I always have.
I will confess there is a part of my identity that was very much wrapped in academic success. That was kind of how I defined myself as a teenager. I had a lot of academic success; I went to BYU and the same was true. So, there was a part of me that maybe was proving to myself, you know, who I was with this decision to go to graduate school. When I first came to BYU, I thought that I would be a doctor. Not out of any real desire to go into medicine, but because it seemed like the way to define myself as, as more-maybe as more serious or—it was a kind of adolescent gesture of self-definition. That I’m different from my community, you know? It didn’t’ take too long before I realized that wasn’t really what I wanted.
But when I went to graduate school there may have been an element of that proving to myself that I was smart. But nobody can last long in a PhD program if that’s your only reason for being there. You have to love it. I loved it! I just came alive. I was really fortunate to move through the program with a good friend who also came from BYU at the same time, his name is Aaron Eastley and he now teaches in the English department at BYU.
GIVENS: Were you married at the time?
WELCH: Yes, I was married at the time, yeah. So, I was married, I had my first two children during those years. We were embedded in a wonderful LDS ward and community. So, all the pieces were in place.
GIVENS: But it came at significant cost and it wasn’t something you just kind of frivolously did on the side because you enjoyed the ride. There had to be a recognition that there’s a deep investment I’m making in this program, this degree.
WELCH: I will tell you; I just went by what brought me pleasure and reward.
GIVENS: And your husband is supportive?
WELCH: Oh, I won the lottery with an amazingly supportive husband who is—my husband John Welch—he grew up with a mother who taught French at Brigham Young University so that was not foreign to him whatsoever. He was and has been supportive all along the way.
GIVENS: Did you think at that time that you might go into academics professionally?
WELCH: I didn’t know. I didn’t know. I didn’t come to it—
GIVENS: I’m dwelling on this because I feel that there are so many young women in the Church who are struggling with this decision. They want to be fully developed and rightly pursue their potentials as intellectuals and academics. But they don’t know how do you balance that with—
WELCH: Yeah, yeah. You know, so, one of the blessings I suppose of going into English literature—a blessing in disguise—is that in reality, the prospects for getting a job afterwards are slim. So, you have to go in from the outset realizing this might not lead to a job in academia. You have to be there for other reasons otherwise it’s a waste of time. So, I went into it wanting to earn the PhD. That is what mattered to me. The job afterwards really didn’t matter to me that much.
I knew more than I wanted—I knew that I wanted a family and I wanted to be a mother. I believed that I could combine that in some way with continued scholarly pursuits. For me, personally, I always knew that I wanted to have a number of children. So that was the first priority and I thought, I’ll do this as long as it works and as long as it’s bringing me pleasure. So, I got all the way through the PhD and it was really wonderful.
I think, I’ve said this before, in an ironic way being a part of an LDS ward, a Mormon community, helped me so much because it reassured me that where my real value lay was not as a superstar academic but as an embedded member of a family and of a community. And I can bring what I, you know, what I was learning and doing in graduate school and offer that, you know, to strengthen the community. But if I failed there, it didn’t diminish my value. It didn’t, you know, disrupt—
GIVENS: It wasn’t a primary identity.
WELCH: Exactly, it wasn’t my primary identity. So, and I think that really alleviated so much of the anxiety that accompanies with PhD for so many people. There’s a whole literature out there of people who struggle in PhD programs and they quit, and they’re really damaged in a certain way because it’s just devastated their whole self-understanding. That was never the case for me and ironically it helped me because I wasn’t paralyzed by fear or anxiety. I was able to continue forward and finish the degree, which was my goal.
GIVENS: I’d like to turn now to one of your conference papers in particular cause it fits so well into the topic to which we’ve been returning in these initial episodes and that is the title we’ve given to the rubric we’re working with is “The Ways of Discipleship.” And you’ve had some interesting things to say about different ways of viewing our discipleship and the grounds for discipleship. The talk that you gave, I think it was at a FAIR conference, right? And it was on disenchantment where you start out with this lovely story about the forest of Arden in one of Shakespeare’s plays—an enchanted forest. And then you tell us, but this Rosalynde, unlike the Rosalynde of Shakespeare’s play, does not live in an enchanted world. So, I’d like you to say just a few things about that by way of introduction and then I’m going to read a few passages in particular that I’d like to talk about.
WELCH: Okay, yeah. Yeah, you know, this piece started as a shorter blog post that I wrote almost flippantly, and the title was “Religious but not Spiritual.” Kind of a reframing of the typical “spiritual but not religious.” Because as I thought about it, that described me perfectly. I love religion. I love religious holidays. I love learning about religions and most of all, I am so deeply rooted in a practicing religious community. And yet at the same time, I don’t consider myself to have a highly refined spiritual sensibility.
GIVENS: I’m going to challenge that “but”—
WELCH: Okay. And I think that’s fair, yeah. And by that I would just mean, the ways that many Mormons describe their spiritual experiences—feeling the Holy Ghost, being connected to forebearers and ancestors who are close by, behind a very thin veil, feeling moved and instructed by the Lord by means of personal revelation—I haven’t tended to resonate. I haven’t found in my own personal experience, experiences that match that, right? I do think I have my own way but that was just what I wanted to explore was, why then am I Mormon? And why can’t I imagine my life without Mormonism?
GIVENS: Okay, before we go there, did you sense that there was going to be a receptive identity of listeners who would identify with that self-description? And was there?
WELCH: I sensed there would be. I sensed there would be partly because I had gotten a lot of positive feedback from the initial short blog post that I wrote. And people said, “You know what, that actually describes me too. Yeah, I’m religious but I’m not spiritual.” And putting it in that way seemed to crystallize something for people.
I had a little bit of trepidation. For one thing, sort of self-exploration isn’t a mode that I’m entirely comfortable with despite the fact that I’m willing to do so today. And I didn’t want to minimize or seem to belittle anybody else’s spiritual experiences as well. So those were some of my concerns going into the project. But I had a sense that there were other people out there and since then I’ve had people say, “Yeah, you described what it’s like for me too.”
GIVENS: Well, one of the wonderful developments that I think we’re seeing in Mormon culture is a recognition that we have a rhetoric of certainty that is imprisoning to many people. Many people who feel they can’t stand up and testify of the kind of spiritual sources of knowledge and conviction that many have. And I think that’s a good thing, right? That’s a healthy thing. That was can all find ways to testify of our devotion in a language that is authentic and appropriate to us.
But you set yourself up in opposition to more convention, right, paradigms of spirituality and you single out Fiona’s and my book in particular. And you do it so gently and graciously.
WELCH: Only because nobody else could do so as plainly as you and Fiona do.
GIVENS: But I want to talk about this because I think you raise some absolutely fantastic questions and challenges to some of our own positions and descriptions. And you quote, so that’s going to be my justification for quoting—this was a talk, I guess I gave at BYU. But I want to quote this and then we’ll have a conversation about it.
I said, I don’t know, back in 2004 I think, “I am convinced that there must be grounds for doubt as well as belief in order to render the choice more truly a choice and therefore more deliberate and laden with personal vulnerability and investment. When, as it would seem, all is provided with sufficient materials out of which to fashion a life of credible conviction or dismissive denial. We are acted upon, in other words, by appeals to our personal values, our yearnings, our fears, our appetites, and our egos. What we choose to embrace, to be responsive to is the purest reflection of who we are and what we love. That is why faith—the choice to believe—is in the final analysis. An action that is positively laden with moral significance.”
And you take issue with that and you posit that at least in your case, you’re not sure if calling faith a choice works. So, explain a little bit what you mean by that cause my belief is that you and I are much closer on this issue than maybe appears.
WELCH: I think we are. Yeah, yeah. I guess the simplest way to approach it is just to say, I don’t experience belief as a choice. Right, I—
GIVENS: You use a magnificent word instead, right? You talk about puzzlement.
WELCH: Puzzlement. Yeah, I mean part of this idea of choice I think is resonate for many people, especially for those who do experience a transition of doubt. Where their belief is called into question. That was not my journey. That was not my journey. I didn’t experience some sort of drastic change in outlook, I didn’t encounter new information that called everything into question. I have never felt myself to be in a place of crisis that needed to be resolved.
WELCH: Instead, I just felt in some ways like I lived in a different kind of world where belief wasn’t relevant to the things that really mattered to me. And I’ve thought about why this is the case, you know, do I believe this, do I believe that? I could come up with answers to that, but it doesn’t seem like it would really change how I live my life one way or another.
Belief for me is a kind of intellectual exercise and intellectual experience that happens to me. I can’t really, for example, choose whether I want to believe in global warming or not, right? To me that’s something that happens at a deeper level that I can’t really talk myself into or out of. It’s a kind of process of judgement and identity that happens below the conscious level. So, belief has its place, but it doesn’t seem to impact the deep sources of my being and my identity. And maybe thinking about the passage there, I’ve thought about why it is that that doesn’t resonate for me.
It may be the way that agency seems to be centered and concentrated in the individual. There are times where I have felt powerful as an individual person making an individual choice. But the times when I have felt most powerful, when I’ve felt like I’m acting on the world in the most significant ways, are the times when I’m working together in the community. When I’m working through and with other agents, other people. And it’s that coming together as a group and working things out.
It doesn’t always look pretty. It can be very messy sometimes. It can be hard sometimes. It can be painful sometimes. For me, those are the experiences, for example, learning—I come from a very big family, oldest of eleven children—how do we continue to be a family as a group of different adults, right? With different interests and different priorities. That’s hard. But that is what makes me feel powerful and makes me feel as though I’m acting on the world in a really significant way. And choice doesn’t really come into that a lot, right? Choice doesn’t play a big role in that kind of communal endeavor.
So, I think if I were to try to narrow it down where the difference may be, it may be in that understanding of where choice really is located.
GIVENS: Okay. Yeah, let me read something further that you wrote explaining why I think we’re saying the same thing maybe with different language.
You say, “Moments of hesitation become the personal occasions of faith, but they originate not in our capacity to choose—in our strength of will—but on the contrary in our own limitations of mind. In our insufficiency to comprehend or our present inability to decide.”
And I couldn’t agree more. And I find this thought clearly in Thomas Aquinas where he says, “If something is enough to move the will, but not the understanding, then we have acted on the basis of faith.”
But it seems to me that that’s pretty close to what you’ve said. That there will come times in everyone’s life where we don’t find enough data. There just isn’t enough evidence to come to a reasonable conclusion as to which of two paths is best. And at that moment of what you call puzzlement, life demands that we make a choice. That we either freeze or we move forward.
And so, you go on to say, for example, “Puzzlement primes us not to know or decide or choose. But simply to attend to experience as it comes. I mean attend in all of its senses at once. To accompany, to care for, to serve, to pay attention, to notice.”
But I guess what I’m saying is, all of those things are choices. They are choices to persevere through the clouds of uncertainty, through the clouds of unknowing, and it seems to me that that’s a powerfully willed choice because there are any number of reasons and motivations to just throw one’s hands up in despair and to just fall into stasis and apathy. But as you described, you instead commit yourself to a communal endeavor. You affiliate yourself with a body of believers and it seems to me, how could that not be choosing in the absence of certainty?
WELCH: I think you’re right. You know, it’s quite rare for me to be in a situation where it’s a matter of insufficient data. Right? Where my puzzlement is a result of just not knowing enough. Usually, and I think this might be the case for most of us, it’s a place where there seems to be competing and unreconcilable claims on our care. Right? And you find yourself torn. If I do this for this person then that means that I’m not doing this for that person or there are these other, you know, competing demands on me and my care, my time, my attention.
I usually come to that moment of puzzlement in the context of competing claims on me rather than in the context of insufficient evidence. And as I say, in that case, all that I can do, I can’t figure it out or I haven’t yet. So, I stop trying to resolve the differences, arbitrate the claims and I just try to pay attention to what’s in front of me now.
GIVENS: So, what basic presuppositions do you affirm? Are there any that you feel comfortable saying, “Yeah I really—I feel this. I believe this in my heart’s core”? That would form kind of the nucleus of your discipleship.
WELCH: Let’s see. Discipleship, for me, it means “pay attention” and “start here.” Start where you are, look around where you are. What’s been given to you? Pay attention to that. Jesus of Nazareth. Start here. Right? This is the moral figure as a Christian, in the Christian way, that is given to us. Pay attention to Jesus Christ.
GIVENS: So, at any point in your life have you made that kind of conscious decision that “yes, I’m going to start with Jesus as my guide, my polar star”?
WELCH: Yeah, I can’t point to a particular moment. I’m a very low drama person. I don’t tend to have big crisis or big moments of resolution but when I come to those places of “what do I do now?” My instinct—and I credit it to the loving care of the family which I grew up in—but my instinct is to go back to those basics. Love the Lord, love your neighbor, start here.
GIVENS: So you’ve said that you don’t feel at any point you’ve chosen Mormonness—that it’s a given. It’s in your blood. So, what do you say to those people who say, “Yeah, but community isn’t enough, that isn’t enough to carry us through the valleys of indecision and despair”? That there has to be some encounter with the Divine of some sort. Do you just say, “Well we don’t all have access to that”? And carry on regardless.
WELCH: Yeah. I do think that there—for me personally, the way that I—the closest that I come to experiencing that divine is in community. But I know that that’s not the case for everybody.
You know, it’s interesting, one of the points that I make, I believe in the article is that for people—you know, saints and others—prophets who’ve had these kind of ecstatic emotional experiences—emotional, spiritual experiences. Oftentimes, what they experience is a kind of dissolving of their self. Right? This kind of self of deep connectedness to others. Whether it be in the sense that your ancestors are watching over you and are connected in you and that you, in turn, are caring for them and helping them and invested them by doing their temple work. This way that our selves are seen—or revealed—to really be all in community.
So, if that kind of spiritual knowledge isn’t available in a kind of visionary form or a kind of emotional intuitive form, I think that community itself can reveal that same truth to us. That’s been the case for me. The experience of—I work in the primary currently—and the experience of watching these children. Seeing them grow, seeing them suffer. And the love that I feel for them binds me and connects me and invests me in such a deep way in their parents as well. Right? And I feel myself kind of expanding into these children and into these families that I worship with. Some of whom drive me crazy, right? Some of whom are totally wrong on important things! But I can’t help but love them because I am caring for them. I’m invested in them. For me, that quite clearly reveals the love of God.
At the same time, I’m always conscious of the fact that I’m privileged, and I fit into Mormon community structures easily. I fit a lot of the right categories and I check a lot of the right boxes. So, it hasn’t been hard for me to find a warm and loving embrace in a Mormon ward. And I am very aware that there are those who don’t fit those boxes so easily and that they are left feeling cold sometimes in a Mormon ward.
A community—to be a community for there to be trust inside a community—there do have to be boundaries. And that means that sometimes there will be people who are outside, and I don’t know a way around that tragic reality. I think that we share a somewhat tragic sensibility of the world in some ways. I haven’t figured out how to have a community with no boundaries. But I will do everything that I can to reach out and bring in those who don’t—you know, who aren’t able to feel in a Mormon community the love of the Lord. If I can bring them into fellowship in the ward, wonderful. If I can’t and I think for some people I can’t, I will go to them wherever they are. That’s something that matters a lot to me.
And I think—I know that there are people who go through long stretches of their life feeling like they’re walking through the valley of the shadow. Right? Maybe for those people, there is a kind of grace in that experience. In the sense that it reveals to us our own brokenness, right? Our need for other people, our own insufficiency. It might allow us to pay more attention to what’s happening now rather than to be fixated on something that will happen later. I think there’s a lot of value in that.
So, I think that for those who struggle and who are not able, like I am fortunately, to find an easy embrace in the community, I nevertheless think there can be a grace in that spiritual path as well.
GIVENS: Yeah. I guess, part of what I want to do in this conversation is to narrow the gap between what you’re expressing and what I think is the lived and felt experience of many, many people. And I guess there are a couple of ways in which I would try to nudge those peripheries together.
One is to suggest that it’s no small thing to say community is the core and essence of your connection. Because it’s not a social club. What we’re talking about is a Zion in process. We’re talking about a particularly Mormon conceptualization of community as eternal in its duration and the other point I would make is that I’m not sure that to find one’s way to Christ, through service, interconnectedness with others, isn’t in some ways a more perfect version of testimony and grounding.
I’m thinking of Thomas Carlisle for example, who in his “Heroes and Hero Worship” he begins by defining religion and he said, “Religion has nothing to do with tenants or articles of faith.” He says, “You show me a man in his activities, and I will tell you what his religion is.” So it seems to me there’s a sense in which you’re just kind of reversing the usual order of things and saying, “Well it’s not that my actions follow from my theology, but derive whatever theology you want through my actions, which are a nowness of engagement with present circumstances and present people’s.” Does that make some kind of sense?
WELCH: I think that’s very well put, yeah.
GIVENS: A related point I think is relevant here is that your personal journey, your characterization of it, that in some ways has kind of a historical analog, which is a kind of charismatic encounter with divine agencies and powers is very typical only of the first generation of the church and as some of us have pointed out the Book of Mormon seems fixated on this concept of dialogic revelation, which you mentioned in this essay, but it’s very rare that one would encounter a Latter-day Saint today who would say, “Yes, like Nephi, I returned to my tent from conversing with the Lord and some kind of a dialogic exchange.”
You know Hugh Nibley was one who was always warning us that in abandoning pure charismata in that way we have too easily substituted emotional experiences, as surrogate, and you just seem resistant to that. You’re not going to go in that direction, right? You’re not going to call those fuzzy, warm feelings spiritual when you would designate them as – I mean I don’t want to speak for you, but is that accurate?
WELCH: I wouldn’t characterize it as a kind of intellectual polemic. You know, I—there is this kind of narrative of disenchantment, there’s a kind of sociological narrative of disenchantment that I actually think has been called into questions, right? This idea that there’s this kind of creeping and progressive secularization of societies as they develop and that gradually, you know, God sort of disappears. I think that the twenty-first century has really called that into question.
Nevertheless, you’re very right that in our own history this is something that we see. I don’t see myself as wanting to wage any kind of polemic against it. I really just see myself as wanting to explore and understand my own lived experience, but you know I think it’s significant and maybe some historian has done this work. I think about the process of speaking in tongues and interpreting in tongues that was so common for the early brothers and sisters in the early church, and that was a process of communication. Right? It was a way of working together. In some ways there was the person who spoke in tongues and then there was the interpreter, the person who interpreted the tongues. What more vivid demonstration of this blending of subjectivities and blending of skills and capacities to come together?
So, I think that maybe even the message the love of God that came through those charismatas, you put it, was really teaching us again about interconnection and about that community.
GIVENS: Yeah I feel that I’ve had those experiences in my life that I would trace to some kind of a spiritual realm or reality, but I find my ongoing energy and enthusiasm is largely powered by what I see as the intellectual richness of the theological tradition as Joseph Smith initiated it. I’m sensing that something similar must be felt in your own life because of your perennial engagement in the discourse of Mormon studies in Mormon theology. So, can you talk a little bit about what ideas you find especially fertile or rich or invigorating?
WELCH: Oh! Well, you know deeply related to my experience of being in the world is this notion of immanence, right? I-m-m-a-n-e-n-c-e. This is a kind of academic term. All it means is that God is here in the world with us. He’s not far away in another realm disconnected from us. Sort of the unknown knower and this is, of course, something that you’ve written about so beautifully. But that sense that that everything that ultimately matters is here in this (inaudible) the world that we live in. This is something that excites me intellectually and intuitively makes sense to me. I have these moments of just a sense of fullness and embeddedness and abundance in creation.
I’ll try to describe a moment and it may be the kind of thing that can only, you know, you can only live through. But I remember very clearly one day—I love to garden—I was outside gardening. It was a beautiful spring day. I live in St. Louis. It’s humid there, so I was just a little bit sweaty—just the way I like it. And I was out there working in my garden and it was the time of year where some little moth has laid its eggs and little green inch worms appear everywhere. These little inch worms are everywhere, and they hatch in trees and then they come down this long thread and you’ll walk through, you’ll see them. And as I was sitting there working in the garden, I look to the side and there was a robin. And the robin was just kind of hopping along and it stopped where it was, and it opened its mouth and this green worm came right into its mouth. I can’t explain the meaning of that moment for me. The abundance of the world. The way in which the world provides for us, in which we were made to live here. And it gives itself to us. Also of course the tragic dimension because the worm got eaten, right?
GIVENS: Yeah, yeah. I was gonna say, his experience was rather different than yours.
WELCH: It was very different, right? So, there’s a kind of incommensurability which is tragic. At the same time for me that provides a sense of openness, right? When we can’t resolve everything neatly, that can leave you in a place of anxiety. At the same time, it means that there’s openness in the universe.
GIVENS: But Mormons aren’t very good at openness, right?
WELCH: Oh, yeah.
GIVENS: Because it’s the dispensation of the fulness of times, right? It’s the restoration as a fait accompli as how we think of it.
WELCH: That’s right, that’s right. We definitely have these two differing strands, right? This idea of restoration of the original deposit of faith as a very wise man has said, Terryl himself has written. Or, the restoration that’s an ongoing work, right? And we have both of these narratives and they’re in tension with each other sometimes.
I also think that, you know, again I do come back to the fact that I speak from a place of privilege. And it’s easier to be okay with uncertainty and risk when in your everyday life things are pretty okay. I think that the experience of the early Church and the trauma that they went through had a fairly definitive effect on the way that those doctrines developed, right? And the certainty and the safety became more psychologically important to the community, right, than perhaps the openness was.
GIVENS: Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I’m reminded of a working group that Richard Bushman put together once in which he asked participants to write an essay on their favorite word in Mormonism, or their favorite concept. And the one I chose was “boundlessness.” I hope I haven’t told this story before.
GIVENS: Boundlessness. And I was thinking of how Parley Pratt and others especially had this sense that the heavens had been opened, there’s no limit to our potential, we can become like God. The mysteries are to be revealed and made known and there’s just this intellectual and spiritual energy that I just find the most exciting thing about Mormonism in contradistinction to the kind of, right, sovereign deity of Calvin’s tradition where everything is quite tightly orchestrated and limited in constraint. So, I gave this kind of exuberant, celebratory sermon almost on this idea and following me immediately was Phil Barlow. And it was almost like he had anticipated this as a gentle rebuke and he stood up and he said, “My word is ‘The Veil’.” And it was perfect! I mean, it really captured these two contrary trends, right? There’s this kind of unabashed ambitious, right, theomachia, right?
GIVENS: We’re going to become Gods. But there’s also this sense that no it’s gonna be thousands of years of Joseph Smith before we begin to learn the things necessary. There’s a vast universe still to be explored and mastered and the nothingness of man as Moses experiences it.
GIVENS: So, it’s…
WELCH: And I think there’s a way in which those two ideas come together. And maybe the easiest way to get at it is our idea of proxy ordinances, right? And we are saved with our dead. So, there is this sense of kind of the boundless chain, right? This ever-expanding chain of the human family that’s coming together.
You know, at the same time the reason why that’s necessary is because of our own individual insufficiency, right? On our own, as one person, we’re not enough to do that work, right? We’re always, always partly distributed throughout these family networks that we have and whether they’re family in terms of biology or family in terms of a kind of spiritual adoption, I think both that sense of our own finitude, right? Our own limitation. But also, the expansiveness that’s possible when we are distributed amongst these, these families.
GIVENS: Right, right. Yeah, I love the fact that that’s reflected even in Joseph Smith’s theism, right? Erastus Snow said the very definition of God means, “An exalted couple together.” So, the sense that even God is insufficient by Himself, which is a fairly radical position.
GIVENS: Let me turn to the question that we didn’t address earlier but was raised. And that is your future projects. What other things do you have in mind that you’d like to do?
WELCH: Well, as I said my extremely sophisticated and strategic career plan has been to say yes to whatever people invite me to do. So, I intend to do that! And if experience is any guide, there will be all sorts of interesting and unexpected projects that come my way.
Right now, I’m working on a joint project with a friend of mine, Adam Miller. We’re working together on a really close and careful reading of the proclamation on the family. Treating it with the same respect, you know, that we would kind of a quasi-canonical text and paying it the compliment of taking it as seriously as we can, right? And trying to read it as closely and carefully as we can. I think, you know, it’s so important and so relevant to where we are culturally and institutionally right now and to where we’re going as well.
GIVENS: I’ll be very interested to see what you do with the placement of gender in that proclamation because it seems to me that one way in which Catholic natural law theology and a Mormon theology of sexuality in the family diverge dramatically is that for natural law theology, biological sexual differentiation is the key. And the proclamation of the family like, James Talmage says, “Well, actually it’s gender that is the eternal element.” And I think that’s a highly significant differentiation, but I’ll leave it to you to flesh that one out.
WELCH: Yeah, yeah!
GIVENS: I’d like to end with three questions that we always address and that is first, if you’d speak a bit about what do you think as this present moment in our culture and in our institution, we’re doing particularly well?
WELCH: Of course I’ve harped on it. So, I think we’re doing a good job at building community.
Let me get a little more specific. I love our current focus on—especially for the relief society—of reaching out to integrate and serve and help refugee communities. I think that is such a wonderful way to honor and acknowledge our own heritage. Maybe to work through some of those kind of remaining historical memories of our own Mormon experience. Which of course is rapidly globalizing and also to be engaged with our friends and neighbors of every faith and no faith and to get out and to build Zion! To just get busy doing what it is we’re here to do. I love that focus. I have taken it to heart, taken it very seriously. And it has been incredibly rewarding for me.
And it’s, you know, again this is an instance of what it is that I get out of being a part of this religious community. I don’t know that I ever would’ve reached out without a Church to say, “Pay attention to this”, right?
WELCH: And I did, and it’s been so expansive and rewarding for me personally.
GIVENS: And what could we do better? In addition to everything.
GIVENS: But, one thing in particular.
WELCH: I think we could read scripture better. I think we could read scripture better. I think we could teach it better. But mostly I think our better teaching will come from better reading. Maybe what we need to do is be a little less worried about transmitting the teachings, per se. And a little more concerned the actual reading, right? I think in some ways-
GIVENS: Any practical steps that could get us there?
WELCH: I think we can model it. I think there, you know there is this wonderful kind of resurgence of Mormon theology which you are very much a part of and others as well. So, I think there’s some models out there for how to do this.
But it doesn’t need to be a scholarly endeavor, right? It can be if that’s what floats your boat, but I think anybody can get in there. Get in the pages, spend time with it, right? Encounter it in its strangeness. Treat it with the same kind of acceptance and respect that you would treat, you know, the annoying person in your ward-well, if you’re a good person, right? Just be open to it and what it’s gonna teach you and how it’s gonna be different from you.
GIVENS: You know, you sound like an English teacher. This is the English teacher coming out. And no—
WELCH: Guilty as charged.
GIVENS: —and I appropriately sympathize because it seems like we have taught scripture reading in the same way we’ve taught English literature which is, there is a secret message here and let’s tear it apart until we get—what is the propositional content at the heart of it.
WELCH: And if that’s what we’re doing, why not just make a list, right? That would be so much easier. But no, the Lord wants us to read His word enfleshed in these strange, unwieldy, sometimes kind of accidental wrappings, right? But there’s something about that specificity, I have to conclude that’s just essential to what it is that we’re doing when we’re reading scripture…
GIVENS: Yeah, I wish we’d remind our people more often of the original preface to the King James Version appointed to be read in churches, right? It was designed to be read out loud and if you don’t hear those cadences, you lose a lot of its devotional power.
WELCH: Very much so.
GIVENS: So that’s one thing.
WELCH: And we lose, again, this shared language, right? When we know the cadences of the Bible and the Book of Mormon, this kind of shared common language of imagery and narrative and name and even just kind of the funny syntax, right, of this scripture itself. I think it’s a really powerful way to underwrite an identity—a global identity, right? That, you know, our origins—our early Mormon origins—are going to be less and less relevant as we grow. But scripture, you know, the cannon—that will stay with us.
GIVENS: Right, right. Thank you. One last question: holy envy. Do you have any holy envy of any other faith traditions?
WELCH: Oh. Oh, I’m so envious, envious.
No, I, like I said, I’m just kind of a religion junkie. I love religion. I love religious holidays and I am just omnivorous, especially home-based holidays that I can celebrate with my children. I celebrate everything from Lent and Advent and Epiphany to, you know, Yom Kippur and Sukkoth, you know so from the Christian tradition and the Jewish tradition I love them all. I’m really satisfied and filled by the experience of religious observances in the home, right, with my children in a domestic setting.
Let me say, I try to do them with the utmost respect. I try not to appropriate. I try to provide the context that my children need to understand them as they work in their native religious tradition rather than kind of appropriate or manipulate it for my own purposes. But even aside from that, if I were to narrow it down, as I mentioned I love to work outside in my garden and I love—for me, it’s very filling and a kind of spiritual experience to be out there. And that’s one thing that I find missing in Mormonism. We don’t have a lot of formalized connections to the earth. So, I think it’s the earth-based religions with their observance of, you know, the Equinox. I always point out, you know, Joseph Smith received his vision from Moroni there on the Fall…
WELCH: Solstice. And I find that meaningful. I point that out. So, that would be, I think, the locus of my envy. The formalized connection to the earth and its cycles that I desire.
GIVENS: Beautiful. Well usually that’s the end of the conversation. But in your case, I’ve made an exception because I want to end with your reading, I think, some of the most beautiful lines that you’ve written. And to listen to Rosalynde give a paper is to listen to poetry in motion. You’re a very gifted writer and a very clear thinker. This was especially moving, and I’d like you to end for us if you would by reading the concluding paragraphs of your fair presentation.
WELCH: “There is a third new testament narrative that captures my experience more fully”—This is the experience of sort of being a disenchanted Mormon just for context. “It is the story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. It is not the big reveal at the end that thrills me. The re-enchantment they experience when their spiritual perception is awakened, and they reinterpret their experience from a new perspective. ‘Did not our heart burn within us while he talked with us by the way?’ I try to maintain a mind and heart open to this kind of re-enchantment and I live and hope that it may someday be given to me.
“For now, I live on the road to Emmaus and it is a good place to walk. The two disciples confronted with unreconcilable realities that Jesus is the Redeemer of Israel and that Jesus is dead find themselves at the end of their own ability to know. Denied for a time, the spiritual sensibility that transcends apparent contradiction, they instead simply observe the here and the now without leaping ahead to ultimate other worldly answers. They attend to one another and to the ordinary man walking in the road with them who shares with them extraordinary perspectives. They converse, they commune, they reason together. The momentary absence of the spiritual world seems to root them more firmly in the relationships given to them in the present. ‘Abide with us, for it is toward evening and the day is far spent.'”
GIVENS: Thank you Rosalynde Welch and thank you for joining us.
WELCH: Thank you Terryl.