Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Sunstoning: The Borderlands

I recently had occasion to make a business trip, and one of the things I took with me to read on the plane was the current issue of Sunstone.  Most readers of this blog will be familiar with this publication, but for those who are not, Sunstone is the closest thing there is to a “liberal” Mormon journal.   It explores issues that everyone knows are there (in the Church), but are rarely if ever discussed in official circles or publications, and it certainly addresses these issues in a way and from a point of view that one would never find in an official church publication.

There were several stories and articles in the current issue of this journal that I found interesting and meaningful.  I thought I’d share and write about a few of them in this and subsequent posts.


One of the highlights of the current issue was the inclusion of the complete script from Eric Samuelsen’s play Borderlands.  In his introduction to the script, Samuelson shared some of the thoughts that went into the writing of this landmark play: 

“We Mormons,” Samuelsen wrote, “face tremendous pressure to conform, to fit in, to obey, to define ourselves in certain quite limited ways.  It is, for many, a religious culture of public orthodoxy and quietly whispered rebellion.  And so we carve out spaces for ourselves, and we meet in those spaces [borderlands], and we come out to each other … So I wrote a play about coming out … about death and God and sexual desire.  And a space … where we dare to tell ourselves the truth and where we are appalled to find how little it sets us free” [emphasis added].

There were many things about this statement that struck me, the first being Samuelsen’s comment that we as Mormons face tremendous pressure to “define ourselves in certain quite limited ways.”  One of the most damaging aspects of cultural Mormonism, I think, even beyond the feeling that one has to conform to a prescribed imposed code of conduct, is the feeling that one must define oneself in accordance with this external code, through an external lens through which one not only sees oneself, but also portrays (but not reveal) oneself to the world.

It occurs to me that this is one of the primary reasons that gay Mormons have such difficulty in coming to terms with their sexuality:  they are taught from a young age to look to the Church and to their parents and family for a sense of personal identity.  They define who they are by reference to an idealized code of conduct that is taught to them from infancy – a code that imposes, particularly in the case of gay Mormons, a built-in conflict. 

Gay Mormons are conditioned to look to others for approval, for affirmation, for identity - but never to look inward, or even to God (because He himself is defined through the lens of the Church, which also defines the self).  They rarely are able to gain a strong sense of self in the face of this external definition process, and are thus unable to muster the strength to acknowledge, let alone accept, who they really are.  In fact, they often have no sense of self apart from this external definition process.

In the words of Rev. James Alison, the gay Catholic priest and theologian about whom I have recently written, we are “spoken into being” by this external definition process, and it takes a concerted effort to look into ourselves: 

Just remember that we are all spoken into being by those who are other than us. The 'I' of every one of us is a multiplicity of voices, more or less stably held together, but sometimes we can hear little faint echoes, can't we, of the voices of our fathers or our mothers or schoolteachers or politicians, speaking through us. And part of the life of prayer is sitting in a place where we sift through, not being run by those voices any longer, and find that God our Father is able to talk a new 'I' into being.”

I very much like Alison’s image of prayer being a process of sifting through voices, looking for and ultimately finding God’s voice, a voice that affirms who we truly are: the Self He loves with an intensity that can sometimes frighten but, if embraced, releases the divinity in us and thus ennobles and sets us free.

This brings me to the other phrase in Samuelsen’s quote that struck me:  of being “appalled to find how little [the truth] sets us free.”  I would like an opportunity to ask Professor Samuelsen what he meant when he used this phrase. 

What I think Samuelsen may have meant, at least in part, is that, even when we allow ourselves to go into the Borderlands to look for and to speak truth, we cannot take (at least not without great difficulty and pain) that truth back out of the Borderlands into the “Church”:  it does not set us free.  Rather, it can even further enslave and conflict us if we try to live in the Church by the truth we find in the Borderlands.  A realization of this appalls us, demoralizes us, depresses us.  Once one has come to see and acknowledge that the emperor is wearing no clothes, one can never quite look at the emperor in the same way again.


  1. I'm not sure if I agree. I was always taught that I needed to get my approval and sense of self-worth from inside and from God because the world could not give it to me; that I could not find happiness by trying only to please those around me. Maybe I just got lucky in having people around me who understand this?

  2. Nice insights. I particularly connected with your statements regarding how Mormons define themselves and how that creates a problem for young gay Mormons.

  3. The problem you raise rests on looking at truth with an external focus--the idea that truth is outside of us and is dictated by the environment. Most LDS follow this life model.

    The "Borderlands" problem you raise dissolves or at least dissipates when we realize that "truth is within us." Personal revelation coupled with agency leads each individual to the truth that he or she requires to successfully guide his or her life.

    This concept may seem to be outside of Mormon orthodoxy, but personal revelation and agency with regard to ones own stewardship/life has long been the cornerstone of restorationist thinking.

  4. @Joe - I think you were most fortunate to have been taught/raised in such a manner. This is not, in my experience, typical.

    @Mister Curie - Thanks for your comments. Perhaps another way of saying what I wrote is that, instead of discovering ourselves (which is inward-looking and affirming), we "define" ourselves, which by its nature involves applying external characteristics to ourselves. Therein, as Clive comments, lies the crux of the issue.

    @Clive - I agree with your observations. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I wonder if his statement has anything to do with human anticipation: the picture of the dessert looks and mentally tastes a lot better than when it is placed in front of us and we partake - it falls short of anticipation.

    Making love with you
    Is like drinking sea water.
    The more I drink
    The thirstier I become,
    Until nothing can slake my thirst
    But to drink the entire sea

    Kenneth Rexroth

    Nonetheless, I disagree to a point because my experience with truth and my partaking has set me free. (Though in truth I would admit a lingering angst my cultural past has chiseled into my psyche.)

    His comment deserves further introspection - for me.


  6. The idea "that we are all spoken into being by those who are other than us" touches on one of the primary concepts in Don Miguel Ruiz's "The Four Agreements." One of my top seven recommended reads (http://bradcarmack.blogspot.com/2009/10/books-id-recommend.html), the book speaks to the agreements we make as children to "buy in" to the culture we're raised in. The book opened up my eyes to the level that I and others are domesticated, and proved a significant paradigm shifter for me.

    "when we allow ourselves to go into the Borderlands to look for and to speak truth, we cannot take (at least not without great difficulty and pain) that truth back out of the Borderlands into the “Church”: it does not set us free. Rather, it can even further enslave and conflict us if we try to live in the Church by the truth we find in the Borderlands. A realization of this appalls us, demoralizes us, depresses us. Once one has come to see and acknowledge that the emperor is wearing no clothes, one can never quite look at the emperor in the same way again."

    Gah! This is where I'm at. I feel like I'm at a crossroads. For good or ill, I've journeyed to the Borderlands _before_ assuming the consequential obligations of Mormon father and husband-hood. Thus, I'm in a place where a full, potentially more authentic and truth-based life outside the church is more feasible than it would be for another (say, a Mormon husband who came to the realization articulated above with the expectations endemic to a young Mormon family on his shoulders). The main choices I see are:

    (1) Live inside the church as many of my Mormon Transhumanist Association friends and my gay Mormon friends do. Both groups, as a rule, have spent some time in the Borderlands (not coincidentally, many of these same associates have connections to Sunstone). Some of these friends seem to "pull it off," even though they face mostly-unyielding beliefs about homosexuality, the intoxicating fantasy of religious certainty, etc. Also, there are signs of an intellectual revolution in the church. The flowering of groups such as the Mormon Transhumanist Association, Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, Mormon Matters, Affirmation, Dialogue, Sunstone, and a thicket of blogs (By Common Consent, Desperate Mormon Housewifes, Wheat and Tares, etc.) only begin to evidence the massive current of non-orthodox Mormon thought. Though this undercurrent may not be a writhing mass ready to rise up, I think it has helped contribute and give a voice to a more responsive and progressive church. Overly conservative moves such as President Packer's October conference remarks no longer go unchallenged- and such challenges are more often responded to. The PR department of the church is more active and greater transparency is evidenced by the increased availability of church governance documents such as the Handbook. The increasingly educated and wired Mormon populace may recast the church in coming decades to leverage its cash value doctrines of atonement and theosis while cropping misguided emphasis on conformity, prophet worship, and traditional sexual mores. Do I want to jump ship at this portentous juncture in Mormon history, when I could instead be part of worthwhile improvements in an organization that, despite its substantial flaws, does contribute immense social capital and inject some very useful values (think kindness, honesty, justice, service, and the value of human life) into the world? "religion, even if obviously based on a massive scam, is nonetheless useful and even admirable in its encouragement of moral life." (http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2011/04/a-rigorous-theology.html).

  7. On the other hand, I know that I am psychologically devastated and emotionally exhausted by the constant reminders afforded by my relationship with the church: I am not good enough as I am. My desires, a part of my identity, do not fit the Mormon ideal. When I align my behaviors with the Mormon ideal despite my contrary desires, I end up exhausted, stressed, and feeling systemically inadequate, like I'll never be good enough no matter what I do (since what I want also matters and I fail to force those desires into the ideal no matter how hard I try, similar to what I imagine is the experience of a gay person trying to be straight). Is this the best available option for me? Might some insight free me from the oppressive fetters I've felt over the last decade? I don't know.

    (2) My second main option is to strike out on my own. The broad space of the whole wide liberal world has a lot of room for me to carve out a space. Perhaps for the first time in my life I might feel comfortable in my own skin rather than harshly condemning my shortcomings in both behavior and desire. Others of my friends that have left the church suggest that this has been their experience, though the path to get there seems universally excruciating. Differences in this world:

    Uncritically following the prophet? Not required. Thinking and deciding for oneself is, generally, punished less severely.

    Monogamy and kids? An option, not a requirement (polyamory and being single are viable as well).

    Abstinence? An option, not a requirement for this sex-starved, 28-year-old virgin.

    Religion? An option, not a requirement- and even the question of "which religion" is an available one.

    This broader world is less familiar and scary, as its norms are neither as predictable nor as common as the LDS ones I'm very accustomed to. Plus, my family and community and network are primarily LDS, and in all likelihood I will never shake them fully. Will I be successful in joining/forming another community? I could likely carve out my own space- but there's the risk that I still won't fit in. That risk is scarier than the risk of staying in the church, where I know that I don't fit in but at least I know more precisely how and where and why.

    "I have often dreamed
    Of a far off place
    Where a hero's welcome
    Would be waiting for me
    Where the crowds will cheer
    When they see my face
    And a voice keeps sayin'
    This is where I meant to be
    I'll be there someday
    I can go the distance
    I will find my way
    If I can be strong
    I know every mile
    Will be worth my while
    When I go the distance I'll be right
    Where I

    Down an unknown road
    You embrace my fears
    Though that road may wander
    It will lead me to you
    And a thousand years
    Would be worth the wait
    It might take a lifetime
    But somehow I'll see it through
    And I won't look back
    I can go the distance
    And I'll stay on track
    No, I won't accept defeat
    It's an uphill slope
    But I won't lose hope
    Till I go the distance and my journey
    Is complete
    Oh, yeah.

    But to look beyond the glory
    Is the hardest part
    For a hero's strength is measured
    By his heart

    Like a shooting star
    I will go the distance
    I will search the world
    I will face its harms
    I don't care how far
    I can go the distance
    Till I find my hero's welcome
    Waiting in
    Your arms

    I will search the world
    I will face its harms
    Till I find my hero's welcome
    Waiting in
    Your arms"

    I hope that made some sense. I feel this summer is pregnant with crucial decision making. I have an LDS girlfriend I could marry in the temple (I like her immensely and she'd very likely say yes if I proposed to her tomorrow). With my MPA and JD (graduated last week), I could go down any one of a great number of career paths. I could start life almost anywhere in the world, not only anywhere in the country. I have the gumption to make big moves in my life if I believe in the reason for it.

  8. Location, marital status, career, and religion are all open questions right now. As much as I love personal liberty, I'm a bit overwhelmed by the scope of current opportunity available to me. If I had a clear vision for my life, I would stride forth with confidence. However, my forays into the Borderlands have cast doubt on the dreams I forged over the past quarter century. To illustrate:

    Last week Elder Richard G. Scott spoke at my Commencement at BYU. His talk was mostly about decision making. Though I appreciated several parts of his address, I found his decision making model superficial and deeply flawed. The best thinking that I've done and come across the last few years (I worked as a Teacher's Assistant for my Decision Analysis and Advanced Decision Modeling teacher this year, and have invested a lot in my Marriott School ethics class, legal ethics classes in the Law School, I have TA'd for Bioethics class for Professor Steven Peck, a BCC blogger and Dialogue author, I've TA'd for a grad management ethics class, etc.) stood in stark contrast to what I perceived as a simplistic and erroneous model. Elder Scott's described optimal decision making demonized circumstantial considerations while venerating a strictly deontological model (do what is right, let the consequence follow) based on eternal truths, amongst other elements (ironically, of course, such decisions were "borne out" by the positive results that flowed from them- unhappy endings never seem to go very far in proving you did the right thing). That approach stands in stark contrast to the reality of incomplete moral knowledge, competing moral obligations, a value-adding win/win moral imagination mindset, partial factual comprehension, and the seductive appeal to a fictional world of black-and-whites, to identify but a few flaws. I observed the universal approbation of the speech by my orthodox LDS friends afterwards. I thought of how intensely I crave certainty in decision making at this point in my life. However, I still couldn't bring myself to approve of Elder Scott's counsel- because the Emperor wasn't wearing enough clothes.

    On the cusp,

  9. Wow, Brad. Where to start?

    First off, you are in an exciting place. I congratulate you upon your graduation and wish you the very, very best as you face a brave new world. In some ways, I am envious of you. Follow your heart, which reflects the whisperings of God.

    Secondly, thanks for the recommendation of Ruiz' book. I have heard of it; in fact, I was encouraged to read the book, but have delayed doing so for stupid reasons. I must put those aside now and make time to read it.

    Next, thanks for the references to the Mormon Transhumanist Association, of which I was unaware. Another topic to learn about!

    Go the distance ... Thanks for this, Brad.

    By the way, I once thought I had a clear vision for my life. It was very clear, but it was the wrong one. I am reminded for some reason of Nibley's essay, "Zeal Without Knowledge." Knowledge is more important than zeal.

    Blessings, Brad. I wish you the very best. You deserve it. Keep in touch.

    ~ Invictus

  10. I'm straight but irregardless of that this is by far your best post to date.

  11. Thank you, Eric. I really appreciate the feedback. I never really know when something I write will resonate, and sometimes I'm surprised. It keeps it interesting.