A Defense of Sunstone


             Many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are skeptical of Sunstone; as an organization, a magazine, and sponsor of symposia on Mormon doctrine, history, culture, and art.  At best, they see Sunstone as unnecessary outlet for pseudo-scholarship.  At worst, Sunstone is considered a destroyer of faith in the LDS Church and the Gospel of Jesus Christ; a source of heresy and apostasy.

            Frankly, such perceptions are caricatures but, like all caricatures, not without some basis in reality.  Over the years some material distributed through the Sunstone channel has been dreadful; in terms of both scholarship and the promotion or sustenance of faith.  Yet, such material represents the outliers and therefore, it is unfair to define Sunstone as a whole by content that sits at its margins.

             Before Latter-day Saints offer condemnation however, it must be understood that Sunstone is an open forum.  Publications and presentations are not peer reviewed, nor are they censored.  The result is that any person willing to formulate and explore an idea related to Mormonism that the Sunstone editorial staff determine will be of interest to LDS readers (of all varieties) is very likely to find an outlet in Sunstone.  Thus, an incredibly diverse set of ideas, thoughts, and expressions of both faith and doubt can be found within the pages of Sunstone and expressed at the various Sunstone symposium held throughout the United States.

            There has been a long, and somewhat strained relationship between the institutional Church and Sunstone; the history of which is beyond the scope of this discussion.  Suffice it to say, this strained relationship has led — generally speaking — to traditional, conservative, and faithful Latter-day Saints to eschew Sunstone as an outlet for expression.

            While several arguments could be presented to counter the caricatures of Sunstone mentioned above, I would like to offer up a simple defense of Sunstone from a spiritual perspective; one drawn from my own experience.

            Between late 2007 and 2009 I struggled with a crisis of faith and I was unsure of what my relationship, if any, should be with the LDS Church.  During this time I presented at and participated in several Sunstone symposia and read the pages of Sunstone magazine quite faithfully.  As a Latter-day Saint struggling with doubt I felt comfort in the fact that I was not alone.  Sunstone gave me the opportunity to explore very difficult Mormon questions from a perspective I had not considered previously.   Along the way I met some incredibly kind, loving, and compassionate individuals who not only listened, but also offered concrete advice on how to reconcile faith and doubt.

            One of the most popular sessions at Sunstone symposia is one in which active Latter-day Saints offer personal reflections on how they reconcile doubt with membership in the Church.   These sessions played a significant role in my decision to reengage the Church as an active member in the company of my fellow Latter-day Saints.   Questions and doubts still exist but the opportunity Sunstone afforded me to explore these questions helped me understand that despite my doubts, I still have a place in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

            I am not suggesting that Sunstone is the *only* place such questions may be explored.  However, Sunstone was an appropriate and effective setting for me to ask questions and seek answers.  My experience is not unique.

            Sunstone serves an important function within LDS culture and, I believe it unwise to advocate or adopt the wholesale dismissal of Sunstone simply because one may find some of its content inaccurate, sophomoric, or objectionable.

            To conclude, I would like to quote from this year’s Salt Lake Sunstone Symposium program:

 THIS SYMPOSIUM is dedicated to the idea that the truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ are better understood and, as a result, better lived when they are freely and frankly explored within the community of Saints.

WE RECOGNIZE that the search for things that are, have been, and are to be is a sifting process in which much chaff will have to be carefully inspected and threshed before the wheat can be harvested.

WE WELCOME the honest ponderings of Latter-day Saints and their friends and expect that everyone in attendance will approach every issue, no matter how difficult, with intelligence, respect, and good will.

            Each of us learn from and respond differently to a wide variety of environments and contexts.  Perhaps an appropriate analogy would be to compare Sunstone and other outlets for Mormon expression to any number of medicinal remedies intended to address some ailment.  Some remedies may help us feel better while other, similar medication, may cause undesirable side effects.  It would be foolhardy to condemn a certain remedy because we may not respond well to its particular formulation.  Especially when we can see that the same remedy works wonders for others.

            For some, Sunstone is just the right medicine to revive faith, strengthen community, and ultimately, promote more kind, compassionate and Christ-like living.

 Note:  This post was originally published on my personal blog.

P.S — I just returned from the 2012 SLC symposium where I presented a paper on defining faith for those who doubt.  I will be posting the text of that talk in the coming weeks on my blog: www.sethpayne.com


A Defense of Sunstone — 11 Comments

  1. For me, Sunstone is like coming home after being away for a long time. I love it. The attenders are so sincere, supportive, conscientious, and thoughtful. Good people, one and all. It’s probably the closest thing to a church I’m still a part of.

    On the academic side, I love that Sunstone humanizes scholarship and recognizes its practical, moral, religious, and relational dimensions. Sometimes scholarship gets so abstracted from human experience that we lose sight of what it’s all about. Venues like Sunstone put us back in touch with that.

  2. The Mormon church would actually benefit by embracing sunstone. Protestant churches, for example, range from the Southern Baptists to the Episcopals meaning that there is plenty of choice when it comes to the conservative-progressive scale. Similarly Catholicism has some diversity too in its groups. Yes, the church has tried to crack down on some nunneries, but this is rare. There are Catholics of every political persuasion.

    The Mormon Church is gambling that if it says “you have to be a conservative or not LDS at all” that it will force most people to stay. Like being a Catholic, being a Mormon is an identity that makes it hard to jump to another faith. But the problem is that with the internet and far flung Mormon populations, that gamble will pay off less and less for the Mormon church. If young Mormons have to chose between being conservative Mormons and not Mormons at all, then they might go with their peers that they know on the internet and see on TV and leave the church entirely. Sunstone allows for middle of the road Mormons to have a home so they don’t have to chose whether to stay true to their values or true to their church.

  3. I commented on my experiences with Sunstone here. Part of me would be happier if it were exclusively an academic conference with strictly academic presentations, but then I think a good number of the people who come to it would not show up, and the camaraderie would be less than it is. So I’m fine with how they do things.

  4. It seems to me that the Church has eased up a little on its negativity toward Sunstone. It has been years since Elder Oaks spoke of “other voices.” It would be nice to see BYU encourage its faculty to participate more. My feeling is that by yielding the field to those whose experience of the Church is more negative, they do a disservice to those who are caught in between. Although unintentional, I am sure, it strikes me like a soft form of community shunning that Sunstone is stigmatized in some circles.

    I think the opportunities exist to help people who struggle with their faith. The one time I had the chance to attend and present a paper, I was approached by several people after my talk who were clearly looking for support of such a kind. They come to average fellow members like me, I would wager, because they are not happy with what they are hearing and reading from other sources. If the relations between the Church and Sunstone continue to thaw, maybe one will see better resources for addressing doubts. Clearly there is a call for something that is not being provided elsewhere.

  5. I have posted this on your personal blog, but I will repost to see if anyone else wants to provide any responses:

    I guess…here’s the deal. (And here’s why I really regret missing your session) — the people who oppose Sunstone don’t want just any kind of member…they want members who believe in particular things. So, if Sunstone produces [Mormons with] unorthodox views (regardless of whether liberal Mormonism is constructed from Mormon lego blocks, so to speak), then that is still not good enough.

    And I am personally glad/grateful for anyone who has local church leaders, etc., who respect their personal views…but therein lies the problem…there isn’t necessarily a consistency across the church.

  6. Trevor — I have had the same experience you have had with members approaching after sessions etc… As you have said, this seems to be evidence of desire more information presented in an uncorrelated way.

    Gary — thanks for the kind words.

    Andrew — as I mentioned in my response on my personal blog, I think that the responsibility to find a path lies with the individual. Too often I think Church members rely on leadership to provide answers to difficult questions. You wouldn’t believe what my brother, who served as a bishop for many years, was asked by members of his ward. If we choose unorthodox views we need to expect that others will view us with suspicion and we need to develop the self-confidence to endure such suspicion. You are right, however, that the general Church would do well to embrace those who doubt but that is very much out of our individual control.

  7. I hope you’ll grant that some of those who don’t embrace Sunstone have reasons other than fear or skepticism or the avoidance of perceived heresy and apostasy. Some may be like me, looking for something in our conferences that Sunstone does not provide. I read the program every year but don’t find enough sessions of interest to justify the time and ticket price. It isn’t that I don’t appreciate that the topics may be of intense interest to others; they don’t appeal to me, however. I’d be more apt to attend a session on “why the heck would I ever consider leaving?” than on “Why I Stay,” popular and affirming as that session may be, and I have no interest whatsoever in speculative theology, or in the social and political issues that are most often addressed.

    I’ve tried to speak at Sunstone. I give a good presentation, and I’ve tried to have something a little bit edgy to suit Sunstone’s mood, but I cannot attract an audience there. Sunstone attendees may enjoy presentations that speculate on controversial aspects of history, but they don’t enjoy the straight history I like to present any more than I enjoy the popular Sunstone sessions.

    Please allow for ordinary differences of taste for someone’s abstaining from Sunstone, and don’t suppose it is always for some more scandalous reason.

  8. Hi Ardis,

    Thanks for commenting. I agree that Sunstone has a certain “edge” that isn’t suited for everyone and I also agree that there are many reasons one may not enjoy Sunstone — including those reasons you have outlined here. There are some, however, who do view Sunstone with suspicion. My main point is that Sunstone is an appropriate venue of expression for some, but certainly not for all.


  9. Seth,

    Thank you for the thoughtful post.

    My experience with Sunstone Symposiums have been quite positive for the most part. I look back with fond memories of all the people I was able to either meet, reacquaint with, or further our friendships. The hours that I was able to spend with these people because of Sunstone is a blessing I can never repay. Many of these people have now passed on, but my memories of being with them live on with me.

    I think you are correct for the most part that Sunstone may not be for everyone. But at this last symposium; I was able to spend time with my very faithful Mormon friends, my Community of Christ friends, my former Mormon friends, my Presbyterian friends, my polygamist friends, and my not-so-believing Mormon friends. Each treated me as a true friend and our conversations ran the gamut of discussion. We talked about spiritual ideas, theology, history, politics, friendship, service, Jesus Christ, and being a disciple. Can these types of discussions occur in other places with this diverse of a group? I am sure they can. But I have not found such a place and the degree of intelligence these discussions take place in, is quite astonishing.

    Again, thank you Seth for bring up this subject.

  10. Thanks Seth, thoughtful post. I gravitated to Sunstone because of my interest and passion for Mormon history, and wanted to hear/read material from some of my favorite historians. I attended my first symposium in 2001 or 2002 when I was working in downtown Salt Lake. Since then I’ve attended a few more symposiums, and started collecting/subscribing to the magazine. The first issue I read was the one on the “Swearing Elders;” I actually bought the issue at the Sunstone office from Carol Quist. I was fascinated by these essays, especially the role of Elder McConkie at one swearing elders meeting. Also, I think one of the more interesting sessions I attended was one on the SLC Main Street controversy with the Church and the ALCU. Mayor Rocky Anderson was part of the session, and was jeered by many in the audience after finished his remarks. I was impressed by the courageous stand he took on the issue, and was surprised by the negative reception he received.
    I’ve never presented at the symposium, for various reasons it has not worked out with my schedule. However, I have published an essay and several letters to the editor in the magazine. I have great admiration for the two editors I’ve known, Dan Wotherspoon and Stephen Carter. I think Stephen’s book is the best Mormon memoirs I’ve read. I likewise appreciate the openness afforded by Sunstone, and wish more BYU professors regularly presented/contributed. But reading Ardis’s comments above makes me wonder if that plays a role in why some don’t present at the symposium.
    For me, Sunstone was not a forum to help navigate a faith crises or the like, but I’m glad Sunstone serves this purpose.