Although it wasn’t until college that I was actually able to name it, my mind has always been drawn to the quest for the “grand theory of everything.” Given this propensity, it’s perfect that I was born within Mormonism with its bold and expansive views of God, the eternities, and who we are. It’s perfect, also, that I was born to good, curious, engaged parents who valued ideas and always encouraged my theory-making.
Being oriented toward grand theory made many parts of my schooling and early church life easier, for I was always listening for how this or that idea or fact fit into the big scheme of things. As a result, I naturally thought “in context” and was always able to expand on whatever I was being asked to recall—something that impressed both my school and church teachers. Everything came easy for me.
The drawback of a quick mind that is wired to pay attention to the big picture is that it is easy to forget the importance of day-to-day things. In my late teens and early twenties I fell (and still too easily fall) into that trap. I became undisciplined, fell out of the prayer habit, and neglected to live the wisdom taught in the scriptures that I could still so impressively spout. Hypocrisy became my new game—one I played successfully for a while but which I could not sustain. Before long, I was spiraling out of control, and everyone knew it.
As I’ve shared in more detail in several personal essays, I was invited by an aunt and uncle to live with their family and get away from friends and influences that had a powerful hold on me. Living in a great home with an amazing, fun family slowly allowed the better parts of me to reassert their influence. About eight months into my new life I took up a challenge to read the Book of Mormon. In those pages, I got reacquainted with Alma, the younger, and the sons of Mosiah, for whom I felt a powerful kinship. If they could turn their lives around and be of good service to the world, maybe so could I. Two months after that I acted on a crazy prompting to see if it perhaps wasn’t too late to serve an LDS mission. A few months later, I was flying to Seattle at nearly twenty-four years of age.
Post-mission I attended BYU and taught for several years at the Missionary Training Center and was poised for a career in the Church Education System. At this same time, however, my innate need to explore life’s ultimate questions had led me to major in philosophy and to become enthralled with the immense variety of the world’s thought systems and religions, and these interests (along with the discovery that I had difficulty relating to teenagers, who for some reason just didn’t seem as fascinated by “truth” as I was!) led me to decide to pursue more schooling instead. I did a master’s degree in religious studies at Arizona State University and then a doctorate in religion (with a philosophy of religion and theology emphasis) at the Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University).
I loved being in school and exploring all the questions I’d been fascinated by my entire life, but as I allowed the power of the various theories I was studying to sink in, the certainties that I brought with me into my schooling fell—painfully—by the wayside. Since most of these certainties were deeply entwined with my Mormonism and the spiritual experiences I’d had within LDS contexts, as I began to deconstruct everything I’d ever felt sure about within the gospel I seriously wondered whether I would ever be able to stay within Mormonism’s fold. During my struggles to reorient myself in this new world in which everything I’d held “sacred” now felt human-made, I felt alienated from other members of my church, and the supportive community I’d found there now seemed like a distant memory. Did anyone else think about these things? Who can I talk to?
Blessedly I made a friend in Arizona who modeled for me both the life of the mind and patience with the institutional church. More than anything else, he helped me simply to slow down and seek longer views and see if I could come to grant the grace to my church and all its fallibilities that I was so willing to give to other religious traditions while still seeing them as offering vital things to the world. He also pointed me to Dialogue and Sunstone, and I soon found additional models of spiritual maturity (as well as immaturity, from which I learned as well) and conversation partners among those who wrote for those publications and participated in Sunstone symposia and the conferences of other LDS scholarly organizations. It was a slow and unsteady walk, but also a richly blessed one, that led me a dozen years after I began graduate school to become Sunstone’s editor and the executive director of its foundation.
Although all during my graduate school years I thought I was headed for a university career, I’m glad things took the turn they did. Whereas schooling allowed me to fully play out my “grand theory” leanings (my major fascination during these years was Process Theology—the most serious attempt in the last two centuries at creating a metaphysic that can handle everything!), my work at Sunstone forced me to stay grounded, to explore my pastoral gifts, and to focus on tire-meets-the-road issues. Given my lifelong propensity for tripping off into the cosmos in pursuit of understanding the biggest context there is, I very much need to be pulled back to earth, to my family, to my neighborhood, to my ward members. The key point in Eugene England’s classic essay “Why the Church Is As True As the Gospel” is that the church with its lay leadership and geographically drawn boundaries forces us to serve and work with others who may not “get” us or who we probably would never choose to associate closely with if left to our own choice, making it a most excellent “school of love.” My time at Sunstone led me to fully believe this and, though not always pleasant, to even welcome this new type of school into my life as much as I had the other.
I’m grateful for my wide and high explorations of philosophy, theology, physics, metaphysics, psychology, and the world’s great traditions. Although I haven’t found specific language that can fully “capture” what I sense to be absolutely true about the universe and its purposes, I have landed squarely in the camp that says it has to do with “soul making” and compassion. I believe we’re here to learn love and to be willing to see and feel and honor the chaos and complexity and suffering we encounter—in the world, in ourselves, and in the others around us—and even as we do this to still affirm that there’s peace and joy to be found and then work to bring these into fuller realization. I’m also grateful for my local and grounded and challenging associations in my family, wards, and other relationships. The Mormonism I love best encourages me to pursue to their fullest extent both of these parts of my soul and, better than anything else I have found, to seek a balance between them. I think I will stick it out. I have a lot more to learn.
Dan Wotherspoon is a free-lance writer, editor, and manager whose most recent projects include the creation of the website for the Eugene England Foundation (http://www.eugeneengland.org) and serving as director of communications for the Foundation for InterReligious Diplomacy (http://fidweb.org/) and co-writing with its president, Charles Randall Paul, a book titled Fighting about God: Why We Do It and How to Do It Better. For the eight years prior to that, he served as editor of Sunstone magazine and director of the Sunstone Education Foundation, and he now serves on its board of directors. Since its inception, he has been an active participant in the work and development of the Society for Mormon Philosophy and Theology, currently serving on its board, as a secretary for its executive committee, and as an associate editor of Element, the society’s journal. In September 2010, Wotherspoon will also join long-time friend and associate John Dehlin as a host and producer of the Mormon Stories podcast (http://mormonstories.org).
Wotherspoon has a Ph.D. in religion from the Claremont Graduate School, where he wrote his dissertation on theological resources within Mormonism for affirming a robust environmental sensibility. He also has an M.A. in religious studies from Arizona State University, where he focused on world religions and ritual studies, ultimately writing his thesis on theories of ritual empowerment. He also has a B.A. in philosophy with a minor in classical civilizations from Brigham Young University.
Wotherspoon and his wife Lorri are about to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary. They have two children, Alex (23) and Hope (16), and live in Tooele, Utah. He is currently soliciting additional writing, editing, and project management clients and can be reached by email at [email protected]
Posted September 2010