Thomas McConkie, a member of a very prominent latter-day saint family, took that exhortation to heart, though not in a very conventional way.
Thomas painfully parted ways with his Latter-day Saint faith in his teenage years and sought a spiritual path elsewhere. Eventually, he found great spiritual awakening and peace in a disciplined practice of Buddhist meditation. He studied and practiced with Buddhist teachers here and abroad for more than a decade.
(You can also check out Thomas McConkie’s seven-part podcast series on the Faith Matters podcast here.)
Thomas McConkie’s 7 Part Series on the Faith Matters podcast on iTunes
During that time, he was also introduced to the emerging field of adult developmental psychology, which opened his eyes to the possibilities for deep growth found in the beliefs and practices of the restored gospel of Christ.
And so, he found his way back to the faith of his childhood, but he came bearing gifts from his journey. He shares some of those gifts and perspectives in a series of conversations with Faith Matters. He has also written a marvelous book on the subject.
In this Conversation with Terryl Givens, Thomas and Terryl give a tantalizing overview of his story. They also explore how aspects of eastern practices might have the capacity to enrich our own practices, and how an understanding developmental stages we move through in adulthood can help us understand things like doubt and faith crises.
Thomas’s book, Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis is available on Amazon.
Full episode transcript:
BLAIR HODGES: Thomas Wirthlin McConkie was born into a prominent American Latter-day Saint family, but the faith didn’t resonate with him as a teenager. He disconnected from the Church and began exploring the wider world’s faith traditions. He followed a thread through eastern religion and philosophy and was surprised when that thread guided him all the way back to the faith of his youth. As a specialist in meditation and adult psychological development, Thomas Wirthlin McConkie appreciates how connecting with his past opens a new vision of the future.
THOMAS MCCONKIE: Like even the way we use the word revelation in Mormonism; it’s got a simultaneous reaching back into the past, what was lost, and yet it’s also got this simultaneous reaching into the future and putting more flesh, bone, and substance into what hasn’t been fully realized. So my experience with meditation is there’s nothing that I can discover in meditation that isn’t resonating with the tradition already.
HODGES: Thomas Wirthlin McConkie, author of Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis, joins Terryl Givens to talk about his journey in this episode of Maxwell Institute Conversations, part of the Maxwell Institute Podcast and sponsored by the Faith Matters Foundation.
TERRYL GIVENS: Hello, and welcome to another installment of Conversations with Terryl Givens, sponsored by the Faith Matters Foundation. I’m your host and this is a videocast series devoted to exploring the experience of lived Mormonism as a catalyst to the abundant life and the public good.
Today with us is Thomas McConkie, author, speaker, mindfulness guru, and a fascinating conversationalist. So we’re happy to have you here with us today, Thomas.
THOMAS MCCONKIE: Thank you, Terryl. Great to be here with you.
GIVENS: We always like to start by getting a little bit of background on our guests. So I’m going to ask you to fill us in just a little bit for those who aren’t familiar with you or your work. So let’s imagine that we’re reading your obituary fifty years from now, or seventy-five years from now. What’s it likely to tell us? Kind of an official obituary, not written by you.
MCCONKIE: That always depends on who writes your history, right?
GIVENS: It does, that’s right.
MCCONKIE: When you asked me about an obituary, I apologize if this comes off as kind of a foreign or Eastern notion, but that tends to be what I’m known for a little bit in the Mormon circles. I have this hope that who I am as an individual isn’t remembered so much as the spirit that comes through all of us. I actually hope and live in a way that I aspire to not be remembered, if I may so bold.
GIVENS: Well that’s an interesting idea. I mean, I think there is some Western precedence for that idea as well. I’ve heard it said—
MCCONKIE: Help me connect then.
GIVENS: Well I’ve heard it said that the best teaching leaves the students with a memory of what was taught, and not the personality behind the lecturer.
MCCONKIE: I’ll go for that. Absolutely. That’s what’s coming up at the moment. Kind of a simplicity that I’m less concerned about specific so-called accomplishments or experiences in my life, even personality traits, so much as just I hope to give myself to and point people back to a basic goodness that deeply informs my life and has been really animated by my participation in the church.
GIVENS: Oh good. Well I’ll take that. I’ll take that. Tell us a little bit in the meantime about how do you fill your nine to five? What is your line of work?
MCCONKIE: It’s pretty colorful these days. I’m finishing up a second book right now that I’m really excited about. So writing takes up a lot of my time.
I’ve been really involved in a research project based in Seattle at Pacific Integral. It’s an institute that researches adult development. So I’ve been doing primary research, working with the instrument where we assess adults, and I’ve been facilitating a program that’s year-round where we work with adults and take them in deeply to an experience and notice how they shift, how they change, how they grow during the one-year experience. So I’ve been really deeply involved in developmental research.
I’ve also, just this year, it was last September of 2016, I and a few other people that I’m close with, started a community called Lower Lights, which that takes up more time and we could maybe talk about that as well.
SPOTS OF TIME
GIVENS: We’ll talk about that in a few minutes. You talk about your work in the theory of development, developmental stages, and you use that as a kind of lens or prism through which you look at the experience of Mormonism.
Before we turn to that subject, tell us a little more about yourself. Let me phrase the question this way: I typically like to quote William Wordsworth, great poet, who is referring to the fact that he says there are in our existence spots of time that shape, that mold us, that we remember with a renovating virtue from time to time.
Could you take us to two or three spots of time in your life that you think were particularly transformative or identity shaping?
MCCONKIE: Yeah. Absolutely. Only two? Only three? So many come to mind.
GIVENS: We’ve got plenty of time.
MCCONKIE: So many come to mind. One experience that I’ll just detail briefly, I’m actually writing about it in the current book, but I had the experience of a faith healing when I was twelve years old. I had a really high-grade fever. My parents didn’t know whether they should take me to the hospital or not.
My granddad, Wirthlin, lived just down the street in Salt Lake City where I grew up, and he came in on a really snowy, cold, wet winter’s evening and he laid his hands on my head and I felt the power of God just bake my body clean of any illness. It was just an in the moment completely immersed in the spirit kind of experience.
GIVENS: You were twelve years old?
MCCONKIE: I was twelve years old. I was less involved, this is interesting, because I’m sitting with one of the great scholars of Mormonism—which is an honor—and I’ve really intuitively taken a contemplative route in life. I think I’m just maybe wired that way. It’s a predisposition of mine. That single prayer, that single experience of an elder laying his hands on my head with the power of Christ and rebuking an illness, that was worth more than reading a thousand books and treatises and scriptures.
GIVENS: So a really foundational experience?
MCCONKIE: Oh yeah. I knew it was real. I knew something was real. I knew that there was a reality, worlds beyond worlds that weren’t visible by the eye of flesh, but there were angels amongst us. There were powers acting on us and it was an incredible experience to become available to.
DISSONANCE IN AND OUT OF THE CHURCH
GIVENS: Now you went through a period in your personal life of distancing yourself from the institutional church?
GIVENS: How do you deal with memories of those kinds of experiences from the other side of activity and engagement in a community?
MCCONKIE: It’s hard. It was a lot of, if I understand your question, there was a lot of dissonance, having a kind of depth of a Christenistical experience before I’m even a teenager, and then going the adolescent turmoil of a power-struggle with my dad and the meaning of what it means to be a Wasatch Front Mormon growing up.
So there was a lot of dissonance, on one hand church was really uncomfortable and disagreeable to me in a lot of ways, and I knew that it wasn’t just a lot of hocus pocus and pageantry, that something was happening there. So it really created a challenge for me, especially in adolescence. I stayed close the only way I knew how to, and that actually became a formal contemplative practice, I started to just sit in stillness every day and try to make myself available to that spirit that I knew to be real.
GIVENS: It’s good to hear the story, because as I am fond of saying, we tend to forget the cognitive dissonance always lives on both side of the faith divide. There’s never a seamless paradigm that easily makes sense of the plethora of all of our experience.
GIVENS: For those in and those out of the church we continue to wrestle the things that just don’t always seem to add up neatly.
MCCONKIE: That’s right. I think if we’re honest with ourselves, our mapping of the world, our cognitive understanding of experience is always being outpaced by experience itself. So hopefully our cognitive maps, our understandings are always evolving, to keep up pace with the direct experience of this gift of a body and a human life and spirit.
GIVENS: Which is why you tend to focus on the concept of development, as both a feature of human psychology, but also of LDS theology, a kind of congruence there.
MCCONKIE: Yeah. I mean, if I were to say a word about that, I again was trying to reconcile this sense of estrangement and alienation from a tradition that I knew to be powerful from a really young age.
In my mid-twenties one of my meditation teachers pointed me to this book on adult development. He said, “I think this is right up your alley right now.” The moment I saw the literature I felt like I was looking in a mirror. I could see myself. I could see that I had changed over time. I could see that I continue to change, and it gave me tremendous hope for who I was becoming. It gave me tremendous hope for my family and my community, that I was also in this process of becoming.
GIVENS: Now I want to ask you a question, maybe it’s related, and maybe I’m just dwelling on semantics, but it seems that I’ve encountered this word “powerful” in your writings before. It seems that you’re not using it in just a kind of general, careless fashion when you talk about the power in Mormonism. What do you mean by that?
MCCONKIE: Well I appreciate that. I’m deliberate about it. Part of it is a rhetorical shift away from the word “truth.” Because to me when we say that something is true it opens it up to a number of, “Well, I disagree, I don’t think that’s true,” that’s a hornet’s nest we don’t go poking at later in the conversation.
But I find that the word “powerful” is effective, and even disarming in some ways because I’m not asking anybody to interpret or agree with my interpretation of something, which really opens up a lot of room for conflict, but just to acknowledge something moves us, I find that it creates a little bit more of a gracious space where we can actually share something of the spirit together.
MCCONKIE: So it’s a preference.
OBSESSION WITH HISTORY
GIVENS: Okay, so you had that kind of anchoring experience as a twelve year old boy. You find that you kind of had your wilderness years, wandering but maintaining some kind of a connection to what you sense is a source of the divine—
MCCONKIE: Well I joke with people that I was obsessed with the historical Jesus. Even Mormon history, that was a lightweight, but in high school I wanted to learn more about the history of the church, and of course that’s when I found out about a lot of the history that hasn’t been presented until recently. I was really voracious to just know who are we as a people? What is this tradition we come from? How does it do what it does?
I was intrigued by it. I was intrigued by who Jesus was. I was approaching it more as a rational skeptic, like I wanted to get information that would help settle it for me one way or another. Somehow towards the end of my teenage years, it was when I was eighteen, somehow life just brought me to stillness. Literally, that’s when my spiritual practice became more a matter of carving out thirty minutes to an hour a day to sit completely still. You asked me about one of those moments in life—
GIVENS: Yeah, was there one moment in particular that reoriented you?
MCCONKIE: Stillness was radical to me. No one had taught me growing up to just be still and to do nothing and to think nothing and to ask nothing in prayer, but to just completely empty out my vessel, would be a fruitful practice. I ended up doing it and literally the first time I sat still, not knowing what was going to happen, I was just completely overcome by the fullness of the stillness.
You think about sitting still as like a bunch of nothing happening, and everything, your eyes are closed, it’s dark, big deal about that, but what I couldn’t believe is that I kind of had an intuition the first time I ever resolved to empty out and just see what poured in. I had kind of an intuition of the fullness of all of creation. It completely, again, it was one of those mystical childhood moments where I knew that what I was touching into was somehow related to the vastness of God’s creation that we talk about in the traditions.
GIVENS: Now, do you feel that when you focus on meditative practices, contemplation, that you are importing something into your Mormon faith tradition? Or do you feel like you’re discovering something that was there blatantly but not fully realized?
MCCONKIE: That’s an interesting question and I’m talking to the right guy right now. There’s a bit of a paradox in it. Like even the way we use the word revelation in Mormonism; it’s got a simultaneous reaching back into the past, what was lost, and yet it’s also got this simultaneous reaching into the future and putting more flesh, bone, and substance into what hasn’t been fully realized.
So my experience with meditation is there’s nothing that I can discover in meditation that isn’t resonating with the tradition already. Just starting to take potentials that are latent in the tradition and bring them into motion.
GIVENS: I like that. I hadn’t considered it that way before, but it seems to me that the link in concept here maybe is remember. It’s one of the most frequent verbs employed in the Book of Mormon. I think of that pivotal moment in Oliver Cowdery’s life when he feels himself wavering in his faith, he asks for a kind of confirmatory revelation and the Lord says, “If you want that, you have to cast your mind back to that night I spoke to you.”
MCCONKIE: Nice. I love that.
GIVENS: So the idea is that maybe this is where those two things conjoin, that thoughtfulness, contemplation, reflection are modes of memory, the act of remembering.
MCCONKIE: That’s beautiful. I’m reminded of T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets, when he talks about the still point of the turning world where past and future are gathered. There’s something timeless about what we’re touching on. The simple answer is that there’s nothing that I can be or become or discover through contemplation that isn’t natively Mormon. It’s really energized in practice.
GIVENS: You’re kind of going against the grain of Mormon culture, not Mormon fundamentals.
MCCONKIE: For sure.
GIVENS: Insofar as, and I think I’ve mentioned this before on this show, but there is this kind of obsession with activity in Mormonism. We’re not devout or committed Mormons, we’re active Mormons. We’re inactive Mormons. Contemplation doesn’t come naturally to us.
I remember the first time that I wanted to go to the temple, shortly after I had been the first time, and I wanted to go back and just sit in the Celestial Room. I asked a worker, “Can I just go in and ponder and meditate?” And he was like, “Well, no.”
MCCONKIE: Keep it moving.
GIVENS: You have to keep moving. Exactly. You have to keep moving through the this process. So literally there isn’t a space carved out for that.
MCCONKIE: It’s definitely counter-cultural, not just in Mormon culture, in American culture, in Western culture, we’re in a, you could say, a process, phase, of development as a civilization. We’re active, we’re creating, we’re doing things, and the rocking back into stillness and letting it come, I think that’s less intuitive to us as moderns. I think we’re due for it. I think we’re hungry for it.
GIVENS: Do you think that part of the problem is the way in which we divide inner experience up into religious and spiritual, and we tend to, it seems to me in a lot of the students I encounter at the university, tend to think well you’re either religious or you’re spiritual. So one always becomes a substitute for the other. If you’re religious, that means you participate in kind of community worship and organized religion, but if you’re spiritual you have this communing experience.
It seems to me the mistake Latter-day Saints, that we often make as a people is we don’t realize that just because we have the template for engaging in a community that is service oriented, that isn’t a substitute for the kind of individualized quest for the Christ. It has to constitute the heart of our spiritual life.
MCCONKIE: That’s really beautifully said. I think that’s an area of growth for all of us right now. That rings really true to me.
COMING BACK TO CHURCH
GIVENS: So what was it that turned your mind and heart toward the institution of Mormonism? Towards formal reengagement with the people?
MCCONKIE: This is something that is really beautiful to me. I’ll call it a conversion experience, but you can help me, where in Matthew—might be in chapter five—but it’s the verse that talks about praying in secret. I had the experience of God praying in secret within me, actually, because what it was between my years and years of “inactivity” into all the sudden I’m at a Mormon church for the first time in a really long time, a little bit disoriented like, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m here.”
GIVENS: They couldn’t believe it either, probably.
MCCONKIE: Right. Right. It was not a conscious process. It just kind of happened. There was a moment of really significant stillness, where I felt simple. I felt like I’d returned to some kind of primordial innocence. I knew when I recognized that kind of innocence and stillness, well this is really something, but I didn’t think, “Wow, this is really something. I should become an active Mormon again.” I just thought, “This is really something.”
Within days I was back at church, kind of dwelling in that same kind of stillness. I think it was significant because the church for me growing up was a very turbulent place. It was very conflict-ridden. I think personally I needed that stillness to stabilize me; it was a balm to my wounds to actually be able to access the stillness in a place that historically had been so painful for me.
GIVENS: Let me ask you another question that occurs to me at this point. In the history of Christianity, the contemplative tradition is generally associated with a kind of theocentric universe. I love the theologian Kenneth Kirk, he’s written a magnificent book called Vision of God in which he says the whole history of Christian tradition can be understood in terms of this quest for a beatific vision, where contemplation takes us to this moment where we have that encounter with the divine.
One of the radical innovations of Joseph Smith’s theology is that he reconfigures him. It’s not just a theocentric, but it’s also an anthropocentric heaven. It’s vertically oriented, but it’s also horizontally oriented. So how does contemplation and stillness and meditation get transmuted in a Mormon context into a more meaningful relationality to other people? Does it work in that way? Does it need to be kind of adjusted in that way? So it’s not just about you and God, but somehow it’s a key to richer human relationships as well.
MCCONKIE: Yeah, well that is a mouthful of a question. I’m actually curious in the moment, you pointed out that my approach, my contemplative approach to Mormonism is probably a little counter-cultural.
I’m curious, as somebody who is very familiar and conversant in the culture, what your relationship to contemplation is like. What comes up for you when you think contemplation, or if you imagine a future of Mormonism that’s more contemplative than it currently is? I want to answer your question too, but that’s really present for me actually.
GIVENS: I think about this an awful lot. I’ve always been a little bit sad that in an early version of the Articles of Faith Oliver Cowdery drafts and he refers to the fact that we believe in the same holiness and purity that the early saints aspire to. That drops out of our Articles of Faith. That drops out of our rhetoric, our language.
I can see, one way of justifying and maybe even valorizing the Mormon emphasis on activity is that we believe in a religion that is an active engagement, and not just a kind of isolated contemplation of eternal truths. But as I said before, I think that there are a kind of cultural norms that we need to eradicate, we need to clear the ground. Some of it is just in our language. Think of how insidious it is, for example, that we always talk about saying your prayers. We don’t say, “Have you engaged your Heavenly Father in conversation?” “Have you said your prayers?” As if it’s just this formal right that can be accomplished as this finite little action.
It strikes me that prayer has to become a practice. There has to be this quest behind it and we have to carve out space to make that a moment. I know, for example, if I can just share a private practice that I have found greatly enriches my prayer experience is that I keep a prayer journal. I try to have it with me when I offer my morning devotions. It’s my way of saying, “Speak, Lord, thy servant heareth.” It’s my way of saying I’m prepared in case some kind of insight, revelation, thought comes to me. That’s one practice I have to try to make a prayer into a more meaningful, contemplative searching kind of encounter.
MCCONKIE: I love that. It doesn’t sound so different than what I talked about in terms of, for me to come to stillness day to day I knew that I was making myself available to something that was already there that would not be able to influence me were I not more available. Not different than what you’re saying fundamentally.
I think we’re pointing to a kind of contemplative core, or potential kind of practice or, I don’t know if we’re avoiding the word practice right now based on what you just said, but just something we do because it’s who we are. We don’t do it visibly because we have to do it, we do it because it’s just who we are.
GIVENS: Right. I like what you said about preparation, because that in some ways is the answer I was looking for. Here’s why. Kenneth Kirk says that moment of divine encounter with God is considered to be the Summum Bonum, in other words that’s it, that’s the end towards which we are striving. If I hear you right you’re saying no, contemplation isn’t sought for this kind of epiphany in which it culminates. It’s a practice of preparation for more meaningful engagement encounters with others.
MCCONKIE: I think that’s really fair. Whether you look at contemplative modes in Christianity or the more Eastern practices, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. what I’ve noticed in the universal grammar of contemplation, is that seeking for a particular experience is the sure way to halt all progress in your prayer and meditation practice.
That’s been my experience of twenty years in the practice. Any time I hope for something to happen, if it was going to happen it’s not going to happen anymore because I’m getting in my own way. So I think it’s really consistent with what you’re sharing that way. I’m not meditating because I hope something happens. I’m meditating in a sense to just express my own completeness in the moment. It’s a Psalms twenty-three ritual for me, of saying my cup runneth over. I don’t need to flit about. I don’t need to seek after this or that. I’m already full, and when I sit still and do nothing but be full, it helps me embody, like soak into my tissues and my marrow that I’m complete, and I’m complete in God and there’s no other way to be complete.
GIVENS: That’s beautiful. If we can transition now more specifically into your work—
MCCONKIE: Before we do that, let’s at least bookmark the question that’s a really important on, this theocentric kind of this thrust, contemplatively towards God, versus how does a contemplative practice help us relate to other people? I think that’s a really important question, but we can pick it up now or—
GIVENS: If you’ve got anything more to say on that right now then let’s hear it.
TO BE PRESENT
MCCONKIE: What I’d like to say, before I asked you your experience of contemplation what comes up for me immediately is that when we do start to contact, let’s say this spiritual source, the creative power, the logos that begets us all, we recognize that in every person, every thing, every activity of life.
So this has become a bit of a pop culture phrase, but you see yogis walking out of the studio sweaty with their lulu on saying Namaste, but that Namaste, that reality that we really are the stuff of the divine and there’s a way that we can be available to that experience and open to it and honor it.
It kind of collapses that paradox that you’re talking about, theocentric, anthropocentric, they’re the same thing in a sense. When I’m encountering you wholeheartedly, I’m perfectly present, it’s not fundamentally different than encountering the divine. That’s a practice I aspire to. It’s been a beautiful practice for me.
GIVENS: I wish I had you in my life twenty years ago, because as a father of six, with numerous projects, and grad school, I wasn’t always the most attentive listener. I remember one time my daughter, my beloved daughter who at that time was a young adult, she got so frustrated with me that I think she took my face in her hands and pointedly said, “Dad, I am not a meteorite streaking through your solar system. I am a planet trying to orbit.”
MCCONKIE: See, and that is the divine feminine and its grace calling you back to incarnation. It’s amazing.
GIVENS: I felt rebuked. I’m still working on that one.
MCCONKIE: Me too.
GIVENS: Okay, here’s how I’d like to transition. Your kind of take on mindfulness, contemplation, meditation, has opened a space for some individuals who weren’t finding other effective ways to encounter Mormonism or to transition back into Mormonism. Is that correct? Is that accurate?
MCCONKIE: It’s very accurate. The only change I would make, a slight amendment, is that before I even hope people to encounter Mormonism, I hope they encounter something powerful and something real. I put my faith in other agents that can carry on the conversion work from there.
When I share contemplative practice meditation in the Lower Lights community, for example, it’s with a deep trust that there is a basic goodness that animates life; there is a spirit.
GIVENS: I’m glad you’re clarifying this, because listeners haven’t heard all of our background and prior conversations. One thing I really love about your orientation talk is that you always make it clear that the priority is Christ, and that Mormonism is the particular incarnation and institutional vehicle with that end, but we tend to forget that in our language, as I did a moment ago. In a way that was a gentle but due correction.
MCCONKIE: I would take it, we’ll see how this flies on this Faith Matters podcast, but I would take it even another step back. Even before I orient people towards Christ, I exercise a faith that there is something that I don’t need to name that is powerful, that is redemptive, that will purify us if we make ourselves available to it.
GIVENS: Let me turn to a couple of things that you’ve said in your writing that I think are particularly poignant and perceptive. One is you say in your book on navigating Mormon faith crisis, “My wish is to allow different kinds of faith to flourish.” But even as you say that, there’s a counterweight to that when you say, “But I’ve wondered, is my perspective mainstream enough?”
So talk a little bit about that, about the first half, about creating that space. How have you seen that happen? What other kinds of things, strategies, maneuvers, can we engage in as a people to create that space? And then talk a little about your worries about orthodoxy.
MCCONKIE: Well, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this too. What comes to mind? I heard a few questions in there. Really the exercise we were just engaged in, and I didn’t see a huge reaction from you when I said let’s not worry too much about Mormonism, let’s not even worry too much about Christ.
It’s Heraclitus actually, the thinker philosopher, who said in his own cultural context that Zeus is both willing and unwilling to be called Zeus. That’s quite a mystical statement, but if we translate it to modern times in Mormonism, I think Christ is powerful enough and gracious enough that he’s willing to be called Christ for those that call unto him, and he’s willing to not be. So long as people have open hearts and are available to the atonement, I think we could launch a Renaissance in our own community if we were willing to not have to name every last thing.
There’s a particular didactic approach to religious experience, which I avoid personally because I find immediate experience to be so powerful and so convincing that it doesn’t need my commentary. Any commentary I make about the power and the action of the spirit in our lives, it’s dross. I want to really hold that cultural space and say maybe we don’t need to say as much as we think we need to say.
GIVENS: That may be true. I’ve been talking a lot in a seminar these days about the difference between political motivations and ethical motivations, by which I mean some of us are concerned about actually achieving a certain good end, and some of us are more preoccupied with making a statement that defines us as agents. There’s a place for both in the disciple’s life, but I do think that going up in flames at the stake isn’t always the most productive way of bringing about change in other people or illuminating truth.
MCCONKIE: I appreciate that. What I hear you saying is we do need to say something at some point for sure.
RELATING TO FAITH
GIVENS: We do. Insofar as, for example, my position in the LDS faith community is that there was a real person. He was Jesus Christ. He was the son of God and he did in fact personally affect a universal atonement by virtue of his death and resurrection, but eventually at some point will need to be universally recognized for its healing power for it to be manifest and operative.
But I also agree that in the meantime we don’t need to be hammering that kind of confessional acquiescence on the part of others who may not be at a stage where they’re ready to hear that kind of particular series of divinitive claims.
Give us a couple of examples. As I said, I don’t want to go through the whole dynamics of your book, but give us a couple of examples of how different Latter-day Saints relate to their faith.
MCCONKIE: Awesome. This is really good. One that comes to mind that I think is culturally really relevant and there’s actually a lot of shifting going on in this area, one stage that researchers talk about, it’s the early third person perspective in my book, it’s the expert which is just an industry term people use. The expert is in a place of development where they have been inculcated with a certain worldview and grew up in a certain culture, a certain language, a certain place like we all do, and their rational capacities are just really starting to come on line and inform their adult personality.
It’s a place of pretty significant insecurity in that for a long time we all lived for a long time period where we didn’t have to defend our way of life. Some people don’t grow up with that luxury because from the day they’re born they’re born into a culture or group that’s being exterminated or dislocated, but psychologically we ideally have this holding environment where we learn our language and we learn our culture and we learn our stories and our values and we just absorb it by osmosis, but then when we get into a more kind of, the early stages of adulthood we start to think about things. We start to take a perspective on, huh, that’s interesting that I was raised this way. My friend over here was raised in a totally different way. We start to seek difference. We start to be able to take a step back from our cultural context and reflect on it a little bit.
With that new capacity to observe the way we were brought up comes a lot of insecurity. We’re not necessarily ready to receive criticism about, in my instance the Mormon way of life on the Wasatch Front for a guy who was born in 1980. The reason I want to give you a little context for this stage, because the way that plays out is that I see a kind of a discourse in modern Mormonism where there’s kind of a strident defending of Mormonism, and anything that would seem to be attacking it or disagreeing with any of its points. Really I think there’s an expert in all of us that just doesn’t want to hear the criticism.
GIVENS: Can I interrupt for just one minute?
GIVENS: Do you think that’s one reason why some people react so negatively to the decriminalization of doubt?
MCCONKIE: That’s quite a term you just dropped in this conversation.
GIVENS: Myself and numerous others, and I’d like to think a number of the brethren as well, President Uchtdorf and Elder Holland and others, have talked about the need to be more accommodating of those who are wrestling with uncertainties. It would be a misrepresentation to say that anybody I know thinks that doubt is an end toward which we should be striving, that it’s an addition that we valorize itself, but that in the life of most disciples there come moments of honest inquiry and reservation and second-guessing and that can be a prompt to further growth and discipleship, but some people resist that phase of doubt as intrinsically faithless, wrong, sinful.
MCCONKIE: I think you’re pointing to a sea change in Mormon culture. I can’t speak for the global church, but certainly locally, I’m based in Salt Lake City, I see a battle-line drawn and people on one side are saying there’s not room for doubt and this is the way it is, and not always, but often some of those voices strike me as just being defensive and maybe unnecessarily reactive.
Then when we get into a little bit later place in the way we hold our faith, let’s say a more mature place from which to hold our faith, there’s this kind of curiosity that comes up, and we say let’s look into that a little bit. You have a doubt about this? Well what does that mean? Let’s learn. We develop a kind of fearlessness. We want to just know and our intention is to deepen our faith, to develop, to grow in understanding.
In this case there is a developmental component to it. I want to be clear that we can’t use the stages to just assess something and be like oh this is an issue where this stage is battling with this stage, because we’re complex beings and we can’t be described just by our developmental composition. But development helps inform the conversation. It helps us know when we do run up against reactivity or when we do see someone who is so far off field that we feel like what place does that even have in our church.
It can be kind of a signal to us, like maybe they’re actually seeing something, experiencing something, and I can just take in good faith they’re trying to communicate their honest experience.
GIVENS: And some of those stages are endemic to the human species. They’re not a sign of a particular unique crisis in that individual’s life or in the religion itself.
MCCONKIE: Tell me what you mean by that.
GIVENS: Well if we recognize that these developmental stages are a kind of virtually universal series of progressive stages that we go through just as human beings, and that they will manifest as different ways engage in our faith. So it’s not that we have some unique problem, it’s just that it’s a normal part of growing up and maturing.
MCCONKIE: You said it, I think. Just normalizing the territory. My job, I work with a lot of Latter-day Saints, former saints in crisis. Ever since I put the book out we’ve been overwhelmed by need and by people who really are experiencing these issues.
My job is simple in the sense that I’m just a lot of the time normalizing their experience. Saying, you’re having this experience and this is part of growing up. I think if we were able to absorb that knowledge, that capacity as a church, we wouldn’t call it crisis anymore. It wouldn’t feel like crisis so much.
GIVENS: I want to ask you to talk about one more thing and then we’ll move towards the wrap-up, but in your book you talk about the difference between Faith, with a capital “F,” and faith, lowercase “f.” It seemed to me an important insight. Could you talk about that?
MCCONKIE: I’m curious what you took from it. I’m sure you have something to say about it as well.
GIVENS: Well let’s hear you first. Then I’ll comment.
MCCONKIE: I think you’ve already pointed to it, if I understand you. You’re saying there’s got to be a little play for doubt in here. Doesn’t doubt spur us for deeper inquiry and deeper faith eventually? The distinction I was making is that at a certain cognitive level of how we organize our experience, we believe this, we don’t believe that, I have faith this is true, I doubt that’s true, there’s something playing out in our mind that really captivates our attention. We feel like so much of what’s important in human life is playing out on this kind of intellectual playing field.
The distinction I wanted to make in the book is that again back to this theme of a divine indwelling, that there’s a grace working on us that’s beyond any human capacity to understand or even directly perceive, and just to become available to that possibility, to exercise the humility of knowing that whatever thought I have about something, whatever I affirm, is really just a shadow of a deeper reality. So there’s something in there, and I wax a little mystical, but I think it’s an important point.
I’m curious if that was what your experience was.
GIVENS: I’ll tell you how I understand that dichotomy unfolded in our church’s own history.
MCCONKIE: Cool. Yeah.
GIVENS: I’m working on a biography of Eugene England right now. Fools rush in. He’s an interestingly controversial character. He lived a very fraught disciple’s life. What’s occurred to me in reviewing the kind of recurrent episodes of understanding and conflict he had sometimes with the institutional church, it’s occurred to me that what he realized is his strength is sometimes his downfall, because he was ahead of the historical curve. He is writing in the 1970s and 80s especially, at a moment when the narrative of Mormonism is beginning to fragment, when alternate accounts of the origin of the priesthood ban are coming to the surface, when alternate ways of thinking about plural marriage, when alternate varieties of Joseph Smith’s First Vision are coming to the fore, and there’s a younger generation of students who are not quite as quick to resonate with words like “authority” and “tradition” and “prophetic voice.”
So he recognized that there is a difference between this capital “F” Faith of which the Mormon church may be the closest embodiment to or vehicle, and the many different small “f” faiths that are our attempts to grasp that truth, and he’s trying to work through that tension at a time when the official narrative is still very monolithic, and there isn’t yet room to try to accommodate what do you do when prophetic voices contradict each other? What do you when the historical narrative changes?
So he’s kind of the first man on their frontlines in some ways that suffers the wounds of bringing to light this discrepancy, which of course we’re not continuing to work through, of which the Joseph Smith Papers, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre book, and other kinds of productions are a consequence, a fruitful consequence, a painful consequence.
MCCONKIE: I love what you’re saying. That’s absolutely the spirit in which I’m offering that term. It’s recognizing that there’s capital “T” Truth, there’s capital “F” Faith; there are realities to the divine that we can’t even begin to tolerate in these mere human nervous systems and our biology, and to just recognize that we’re doing our best as translators. We’re trying to translate these awesome realities into something actionable, right here on the earth. We’re building a church with it. To not conflate those two, it’s like the violent metaphor in literature when the metaphor is used so often that we forget it’s a metaphor, we get into trouble. I was pointing to something that simple.
I love what you said when you talk about Eugene England being ahead of the curve. I think in some really important ways that’s true, and it points to a developmental path. It says that he was tuning into realities that mattered to Latter-day Saints at a time where they weren’t just taken to be true.
You have to ask the question like who’s ahead of the curve right now in 2017? Who are the people in the church who are saying genuinely there’s a direction we’re moving in and in order for the saints to be one heart and one mind we must move in this direction, no matter how unpopular it is for that particular person.
I think development can give us courage. I think it can help us to see patterns whereas we would have said that Eugene England is a total crackpot. With some developmental understanding we might say I don’t like him, but let’s hear him out. That would be a big deal, if we could do that for each other I think.
GIVENS: I want to conclude this portion and then we’re going to end with three questions. I want to conclude with this portion by having you read what I think is a very beautiful conclusion to your book, because it seems a fitting coda to our conversation thus far.
MCCONKIE: I’d appreciate it. Thanks, Terryl.
“Historically the question of how to establish Zion amongst the Gentile nation has been a vexing one. What will we do with all the unbelievers, the nonmembers? Development shows us that establishing Zion isn’t simply a matter of converting others to our way of seeing, so much as more deeply converting ourselves to seeing more of the whole.
“All of us are engaged in the pursuit of a meaningful life. Is our own meaning making flexible enough to include the meaning of others? Zion needs all of our perspectives in order to flourish. We can become the sons and daughters of God, yet not through a narrowing of orthodoxy, but through a multiplying of human and divine perspective, always more numerous than the grains of sand along the beach.”
GIVENS: Magnificent. Thank you, Tom. Three questions for you. First of all, what do you think the Mormon people are not doing terribly well right now?
MCCONKIE: Not doing well? Nothing’s coming to mind at the moment. It’ll come. Just give it a minute.
GIVENS: Okay. The second question is what do you think we are doing quite well as a people?
MCCONKIE: This one’s easier for me to answer.
GIVENS: That’s good.
MCCONKIE: Maybe surprisingly. But I’ll come back to the first one. The second one, I have a friend, he’s also a contemplative, and he’s a Latter-day Saint. He shared with me recently that he goes to church on Sundays and he situates himself in the back of the chapel deliberately because he can’t help but just weep when he’s in the chapel. In his words he says there’s a field, there’s a potent spirit, there’s a power that’s so moving and so full and so grand it’s like nothing he’s ever experienced as a human being. All he can do is show up for it and be available to it and allow himself to be moved by it, and he weeps. He’s just a silent, anonymous figure in the back of a chapel just moved by the spirit.
I have to say that’s been my experience too. I’ve had the opportunity to go more deeply into another of one of the world’s great religions, Buddhism, and really partake of the fruits which are profound, which are so much a part of the fullness of who I am, and yet the fullness that my friend speaks of, just the burning, I’ve never felt anything like that either.
It’s a total mystery to me and miracle that what came through Joseph Smith and the restoration dilated that world navel and made that grace and those energies and that redemption accessible to all of us. I think Mormonism, not by what it does, but by what it is, by the power of what it is, it’s a profound gift to us and to the human family. I have tremendous hope and confidence in what that gift is and how it continues to grow.
GIVENS: Thank you. I know I have felt that field at some of the most harrowing moments in my life when I have found myself abroad and isolated, remote from family and friends. My experience in Ghana in particular comes to mind, where I needed connection and I found myself in an African congregation, West Coast of Africa. I sat and just wept at the recognition that I was with my people and felt a love that transcended any particular connection.
We’re going to throw out the first question, and I’m going to tell you why.
MCCONKIE: Okay. Because I have an answer for you.
GIVENS: I’ll tell you why though. When my wife and I were dating I thought that one of the best ways to forge a good relationship was to do a companion inventory, as I’d been taught on my mission, where once a week you’d face each other and you’d say, “Okay, this is what’s bothering me about you.”
MCCONKIE: Not all those skills are transferrable.
GIVENS: That one did not. My wife said that is a terrible idea. We never got through the first one.
Last question. Give us one example of holy envy. Something that you’ve seen in another tradition and say what a beautiful thing it would be to bring that home.
MCCONKIE: The Baha’i faith comes to mind immediately. I lived in China for years and I met many people of the Baha’i faith. Their church encourages them to just post up somewhere in the world and live. It’s a very informal and organic missionary program. They just go somewhere and live. They beam God’s light.
Something I really loved about the Baha’i faith, and this actually scriptural in Mormonism but it hasn’t been fully realized to the extent that it has in the Baha’i faith, but they do not backbite. This is a commandment. People I’ve met, I can’t speak for the whole Baha’i faith, but every last person I met in the Baha’i faith, they were just as strict about not backbiting, about not saying bad things about people who aren’t present, as much as we Mormons are about not drinking coffee.
You read in the D&C, it’s right there, it’s a priesthood duty to make sure that we don’t speak ill of each other in one another’s absence, and yet we don’t practice that like we practice that Word of Wisdom. The spiritual practice of just saying, “I’m upset with this person. I care about them enough to just address it with them, I’m not going to say bad things about them, I’m going to take care of it here.” Talk about a good housekeeping practice. It’s amazing what they do with that.
GIVENS: Outstanding. Thank you. This has been Conversations, sponsored by the Faith Matters Foundation. Our guest today has been Thomas McConkie.
It’s been just a delight to have you today. Thanks for coming.
MCCONKIE: Thanks, Terryl. Appreciate it.