Thursday, June 11, 2009

She Said: Retreats and Symposia

Well! I didn't realize this subject would get quite so personal. But I'm a seeker, I'm a questioner, I have been all my life, even in those early days of marriage described by Dr. B. Had I not been, I wouldn't have investigated the Mormon Church as a 19-year-old college student. And I wouldn't have been open to depart so far from my liberal Protestant roots as to marry in the temple, bear eight children, and forego a career to raise them.

In the past several years, now that my children are a bit older and more self-sufficient, I have enjoyed attending a few unofficial Mormon retreats and symposia. The ones I attend are not encouraged by the Church nor by Dr. B. I wonder why there has been so much controversy over them. Dallin H. Oaks has attempted to explain the reasoning in a talk given in 1989 titled Alternate Voices. Elder Oaks explains:
My remarks will refer to those voices that speak of God, of his commandments, and of the doctrines, ordinances, and practices of his church. Some of those who speak on these subjects have been called and given divine authority to do so. Others, whom I choose to call alternate voices, speak on these subjects without calling or authority.
Elder Oaks distinguishes between the two by saying that both official voices from the Church and "alternate voices" use similar means to promulgate their messages. The Church, he says, has magazines and other official publications, a newspaper supplement, letters from Church leaders, general conferences, and regular meetings and conferences in local units. Similarly, alternate voices are heard in magazines, journals, and newspapers and at lectures, symposia, and conferences. Elder Oaks is very careful in his recommendations regarding these fora--"Members of the Church are free to participate or to listen to any alternate voices they choose, but Church leaders should avoid official involvement, directly or indirectly." He reasons that there are procedures which are used by the Church to ensure approved content for materials published in the name of the Church or used for instruction in its classes. "They provide a spiritual quality control," he says, "that allows members to rely on the truth of what is said. Members who listen to the voice of the Church need not be on guard against being misled. They have no such assurance for what they hear from alternate voices."

Nevertheless, certain symposia, none of which are controlled by Church correlation, enjoy the favor of mainstream members like Dr. B. These include the Mormon History Association, the FAIR Conference, The Sperry Symposium, the recent Sacred Space Symposium at BYU, and many others. Even liberal speakers such as were heard at the recent SMPT conference at Claremont seemed above reproach, perhaps because of their prestigious Howard W. Hunter Mormon Studies Chair they have recently added to their religion program. I think it's strange that some "so-called intellectuals" are tacitly approved in Church circles, while others are not.

I do find it stimulating to attend Mormon-themed conferences and symposia. Different religious styles appeal to different people. Some find a questioning approach exhilarating, while others find it threatening and exhausting. There are a large group of LDS members in the mainstream who prefer an approved, correlated, "answer-based" curriculum. I find this boring. Hopefully we can learn to respect each other's styles.

Finally, retreats seem to fulfill a desire for social interaction with like-minded people. The few retreats that I have attended I have searched out for their open-minded approach to Mormonism. I do not feel the need to accept every perspective which is held by these varied groups of people, but I am enriched by hearing their stories and seeing how they are able to integrate their unconventional styles into the LDS Church.

I'd love to hear about some of the conferences and retreats that our readers have experienced. Which ones have you attended? Are there any of these gatherings which you would avoid, and why?? Tell us about it!


  1. Great posts. I'm not sure which to respond on, but I liked both of them, and think they both make good points. My biggest concern with conferences or retreats is that we make sure we are getting a balance of views. I have not been fortunate enough to attend Sunstone yet, but it seems they do a pretty good job with different perspectives. I would be concerned about people seeking out only specific views, and missing out on or dismissing everything else. So, I watch GenCon, go to church, read "approved" materials, AND I also read all kinds of different blogs, "unapproved" materials, and would like to attend more conferences if I had the means. The only that I would avoid would probably be those on the extreme of either end, i.e. that which is dismissing of diversity of thought, or that which is antagonistic to my beliefs.

  2. Congratulations on a great blog! What a cool marriage relationship you all have.
    BiV- I met you last summer at SS. I am a big fan. I am a Republican, active LDS, married mom of 5 with one kid on a mission. I believe that Sunstone belongs under the big umbrella of Mormon conversation. The church is for the people and we need to hear one another's voice. The conversation will go on regardless, and I/all should be part of that conversation. Variety is truly the spice of life, otherwise it would be boring.

  3. BiV, I've been enjoying these posts. This last set made me chuckle as I'm in something of a similar situation with my husband. Politically we're both conservative enough, but religiously, he's an uber-conservative Mormon (apparently not conservative enough to not marry outside the temple, but that's another story) and I'm an evangelical with all sorts of ties to all aspects of the LDS community---conservative, liberal, NOM and ex-Mormon. My ties to liberal Mormon bloggers and ex-Mormons tend to disturb him a bit, though he tolerates it. When we lived in Utah Valley, on several occasions I dragged him with me to meet well-known ex-Mormons, and I think that traumatized him greatly.

    I asked him once if he would rather have me be an evangelical Christian or a liberal Mormon. Without missing a beat, he responded "evangelical Christian." It made me laugh.

  4. I didn't know that you are a convert, Bored in Vernal.

    I find it inconsistent that Mormons expect that people listen to our message and yet we are so afraid to actually have a discussion about religion.

    It seems to me, the fear of unorthodoxy implies an admission of weakness. Self-confident people don't have a problem exposing themselves and their followers to different opinions.