By guest contributor Carol Hamer.
Shortly after getting back from the Sunstone Symposium, I was interviewed about the experience for the “Atheists Talk Radio” Podcast. I offered to be a guest on the program because I figured the secular community would be curious about the diversity of Mormon thought, which is showcased at its finest at Sunstone. And, while we were talking about the diversity at Sunstone, the interviewer asked one question that surprised me: Were there many disputes?
I hadn’t thought about it before, but as soon as she asked me the question, it struck me that harmony-despite-diversity is one of the most surprising aspects of the Sunstone Symposium. When you gather up a group whose beliefs range from True Believing Mormons, to Fundamentalist Mormons, to Mormons whose beliefs are passionate-yet-heretical enough to get them excommunicated, to Evangelical Christians, to people who are explaining how Mormons contact ghosts, to full-fledged atheist Mormons, well, you might expect a few shouting matches. But I didn’t see anything like that. As far as I can tell, nobody tried to silence anyone or shout anyone else down.
Maybe I somehow missed the most controversial sessions, but I doubt it. I felt that lots of people there were thrilled to finally have a platform to talk about important subjects that are normally taboo. The key was the opportunity to exchange ideas with people from different viewpoints — not speaking to an echo chamber of one’s like-minded friends — so presenters (like me) were as excited to listen as they were to talk. Loren Franck was absolutely right to highlight the open-mindedness of the participants (here). While I was at the symposium, I racked my brain trying to think of anything at all that this motley group had in common aside from an interest in Mormonism, and I think that’s it: there was a shared willingness to learn about unfamiliar viewpoints.
I joked with some fellow participants that the symposium motto should be “No one is too weird.” Naturally I’m including myself — as “the Mormon atheist”, I’m used to being the weirdo. But, as Cheryl Bruno said (here), it’s like the Island of Misfit Toys: it’s just not possible to be the weirdo.
I’m sorry if I’m playing into negative stereotypes about Sunstone by emphasizing the far-out factor. Overall, the presentations were fascinating and well thought out. Holly Welker’s panel on divine malfeasance was amazing, including Holly’s thought-provoking idea of a bi-directional Judgement Day as well as a hilarious discussion by Parker Blount on praying for trivial favors. Andrew Bolton’s talk on the Community of Christ as a peace church was another one where I learned something new and unexpected since I wasn’t aware of the pacifist tradition within the Community of Christ. And, naturally, I was glad to have the opportunity to hear what the representatives of the polygamist community have to say, rather than just talking about them in third person (as so often happens in blogspace). As nervous as I was for my few minutes at the podium, what I heard at Sunstone was far more memorable to me than what I said.
I was also fascinated to see that two different people wrote about how spiritual the symposium was (here and here). I didn’t find it especially spiritual myself, but I’m not surprised that others did. I went there looking for friendship and community in horizon-expanding diversity, and that’s exactly what I found. My impression is that you can find whatever you’re looking for at the Sunstone Symposium because there’s a little bit of everything.