Sharing the faith
Last weekend, I had the unexpected opportunity of hearing a lecture by Dr. Kathleen Flake at a conference on Latter-day Saints in Religious Studies. This opportunity was so unexpected, in fact, that I actually missed most of the lecture and arrived just in time for a Q&A session.
The theme of the conference was "Faith and Knowledge" (and the presumable tension between the two). Along those lines, someone asked Dr. Flake if she had a lot of opportunities to share her Mormon faith with her academic colleagues. She responded that it doesn't really come up much, which seemed to disappoint her questioner. (After all, why squander the opportunity of hobnobbing with so many academic elites?)
I wasn't disappointed with the answer, rather, I felt as if something I'd fuzzily tried to figure out for years was finally coming into focus.
I'm a private person, generally, but especially when it comes to matters of faith and spirituality. As you might imagine, this means that I'm not exactly handing out copies of the Book of Mormon to strangers on the bus or siccing the missionaries on my coworkers.
Of course, this was all sort of a moot point when I was growing up in Utah because almost everyone I knew or interacted with was Mormon, and I certainly wasn't going to be one of those people who terrorizes those poor Utah non-Mormons. But since I moved out of Utah, my behavior hasn't changed much — I've had a lot more opportunities to talk about or explain the Church — but I'm still not aggressively trying to convert people, and I've felt a bit guilty about it.
A couple of weeks ago, I read the transcription of a speech that Richard Bushman gave at a conference sponsored by the Pew Forum. The speech was given in May 2007 and is now somewhat dated because the primary focus was Mitt Romney's bid for the presidency. However, a large portion of the meeting consisted of a fabulous Q&A session where a panel of religion reporters from the top newspapers and news magazines grilled Dr. Bushman on various topics pertaining to Mormon culture and history and he answered their questions expertly. So the transcription is still well worth reading, even if the presidential race turned out very differently than Mitt Romney might have hoped.
Dr. Bushman said many interesting things, one of which was that he hoped more Mormons would become involved in public life so that people would have to question many of the false stereotypes commonly held about Mormons. (I.e., Mitt Romney is clearly not a polygamist, regardless of how you feel about his politics.)
So, all of this was in the back of my mind as I sat listening to Dr. Flake's lecture and her response to the person who asked if she shared her religion with her coworkers. I raised my hand and asked if she thought it was possible to bear one's testimony "in reverse," in a sense — not by constantly talking about the Church but by calmly going about one's life as a testament to the fact that Mormons are, in fact, basically normal people.
Dr. Flake agreed with my basic idea and expressed it this way: "If you're willing to enter into the world of another person to engage with them, they'll be willing to learn about your world, as well."
I can live with that.