There have been a few exchanges about Sunstone on one of my email discussion groups in the past several days that have given voice to a sentiment I hear from time to time: that Sunstone seems to have gone “soft.” The main protagonist in that online conversation claimed that it 'seems the era of challenging scholarship is history,' that there's been 'a decided absence of critical scholarship in recent issues,' that the magazine and symposium content these days is 'about as exciting as sacrament meeting.' With the recent discussions here on SunstoneBlog about Richard Bushman's comments on Sunstone, I have been encouraged by a couple of SunstoneBloggers to share here the response I made on the email list. So here it is with only minor editing, leaving out names of discussants and tailoring it slightly for this audience.
I don't know how familiar SunstoneBlog readers are with Sunstone's mission statement, so let me include it here: “The mission of The Sunstone Education Foundation is to sponsor open forums of Mormon thought and experience. Under the motto, ?¢Ç¨ÀúFaith Seeking Understanding,' we examine and express the rich spiritual, intellectual, social, and artistic qualities of Mormon history and contemporary life. We encourage humanitarian service, honest inquiry, and responsible interchange of ideas that is respectful of all people and what they hold sacred.”
As executive director of the foundation, as well as magazine editor, I know it's my job to be supportive of our organization's mission, but let me say that I really do support it?¢Ç¨Äùit is a near-perfect match with my own temperament and sensibilities. What it describes are the things that first attracted me to the magazine and symposiums, and it encompasses what I value most about Sunstone still. And the part of it that speaks the loudest to me is the hearkening to St. Anselm's description of the role and purpose of theology as 'faith seeking understanding.' In other words, my first commitment is that Mormonism?¢Ç¨Äùjust as I argue does Christianity as well as every religion I've encountered and studied with any decent amount of effort?¢Ç¨Äùcontains important truths, incredible ideas, and tremendous depth. I like my tradition, and I like my people, my tribe. But as Anselm said, 'Once we have been confirmed in faith, we would be neglectful if we did not then attempt to understand what we believe' (from his Cur Deus Homo [Why God Became Man]).
I love that Sunstone is all about that kind of questing, that whatever inquiries our forums host?¢Ç¨Äù-even if it's looks into the most difficult subjects, whether they be tragic events or crimes or strange and destructive ideas or people who act less than honorably?¢Ç¨Äù-the intention behind the explorations is the development of larger, deeper, better faith, better people. There's a great line in the preface Marcus Borg's book, The Heart of Christianity, which he attributes to his wife, Marianne, an Episcopal priest. Of the book, he declares it is 'for lovers of faith and those seeking a faith to love.' That's what I see Sunstone's publications and gatherings as geared toward. We're first and foremost a place for people who sense a value in some sort of spiritual life and who have felt a longing for soul growth rise up from their Mormon roots, their encounter with LDS scripture, teaching, and worship, and who want to explore that further and to create an authentic faith life within the tradition.
Given this good match between the foundation's mission and my own interests, it's natural that some of that will rub off on much that goes on in Sunstone's pages and at our symposiums. For instance, I think that because of my influence, there are perhaps a few more 'spiritual journeying' kind of pieces and sessions than ever before. My interest in James W. Fowler's model of various 'stages of faith' as well as the work of other faith development theorists has created a bit of a movement at Sunstone in the past six years, of which the recent cover article on the effects of faith issues on couple relationships is just the latest example of this type of piece. But Sunstone is still hosting a goodly share of challenging sessions and publishing articles that highlight difficulties. I still encourage participation in our forums by some who might be considered critics if I sense they are willing to engage according to the rules of honest inquiry and respectful interchange that Sunstone declares as the main prerequisite of its mission, and I am thoroughly convinced that everyone, including the Church, is better off whenever we hear each other's best thinking.
I absolutely will not go along with the sense expressed that somehow Sunstone is driven today by some sort of 'dread of offending someone.' As those who know me well will attest, none of my deliberations about a session or an article involve wondering what 50 E. North Temple might be thinking. Where I draw the line is at unprocessed anger or irresponsible rhetoric. For instance, I wouldn't accept a paper that I knew included characterizations of someone or some group as 'humorless ranks of the Mormon Taliban.' On the other hand, I'd be happy to include a paper that responsibly argued against unfair tactics and characterizations by certain voices within the LDS tradition.
Sunstone has been, and always will be, a 'reflective forum.' The content and tone of its discussions will be driven primarily by what's happening in the Church at the time. Whatever tone or types of wrestles may have appeared in past Sunstone eras reflect the issues being wrestled with at that time. I'm not leading Sunstone during the lead-up to and aftermath of an attempted purge of LDS intellectuals manifest most publicly, but certainly not only, in the September Six disciplinings. I'm not at Sunstone's helm during the end of the 'Arrington spring' or Paul Dunn or George P. Lee-type scandals, nor during the natural power struggles that arise among apostles during a time when a Church president is incapacitated. I've been steering the Sunstone ship during a pretty mellow presidency of Gordon B. Hinckley. Certainly there are today many important issues and struggles that need to be highlighted, and I think Sunstone has been doing a responsible job with them. Sunstone is covering (and I think pretty thoroughly) issues facing gay and lesbian Latter-day Saints, LDS fundamentalism in the news, the renaissance of LDS feminism after a period of relative quiet, etc. Perhaps Sunstone doesn't seem as dramatic or sexy as it did ten or fifteen years ago, but perhaps it's simply the times, too.
Though some in this discussion say it appears that Sunstone is 'trying to hold the middle ground,' and how to some this “new middle ground looks more like Reaganism than moderation.' I hear and respect the sense that things may appear that way, but I also feel that remaining true to Sunstone's core mission, to its commitment to faith and to the good that's in Mormonism, is the only recipe for continued Sunstone success (or even survival) as a relevant and constructive forum. It'd be fun to fire off missives and call people zealots and craft extreme rhetorical pieces to match some that we encounter out there, but I don't see that sort of tack as something that would ultimately be effective.