Renowned scholar of religion Reza Aslan visits Sandy's Mountain America Expo Center as part of Sunstone SymposiumAug 22, 2019 02:30PM ● By Alison Brimley
Reza Aslan delivers the Smith-Pettit lecture to open the Sunstone Symposium on July 31. (Alison Brimley/City Journals)
By Alison Brimley | [email protected]
The Sunstone Symposium, now in its 40th year, took place at the Mountain America Expo Center in Sandy July 31 to August 1. Each year the symposium “hosts over 150 presentations on Mormonism, given by scholars, writers, podcasters, and activists from many points on the orthodoxy spectrum,” according to their website. This year’s event, themed “The Future of Faith,” began July 31 with a free public lecture delivered by one of the most high-profile speakers to visit the conference, best-selling author Reza Aslan.
The Smith-Pettit Lecture, which kicked off the symposium, is sponsored on the condition that its presenter be unaffiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormonism. Aslan is a self-described (if unconventional) Muslim. Besides being a professor and television personality, Aslan is the author of the 2012 book “Zealot,” a biography of the historical Jesus which presents Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher and attributes the central tenets of Christianity more to Paul than to Jesus himself.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Aslan has made himself a figure of controversy. Prefacing his lecture, he joked that he is “good at causing trouble.” His words were punctuated with such jokes and infused with a poetic sensibility that bespoke his creative writing training, making his speech entertaining even if you didn’t agree with his arguments.
And there was much in his lecture worthy of debate. Aslan addressed from an evolutionary point of view the question of why religious faith exists in every society in history (the question taken up by his most recent book “God: A Human History.”) Religion’s universality suggests it presents some of “adaptive advantage” — but what? Does its advantage lie in providing emotional comfort? Functioning as “social adhesive”? Allaying fears of the unknown, or promoting altruistic behavior?
One by one Aslan dismissed each theory, arguing that whatever religion encourages in each of these areas it does just as much to discourage. Ultimately, he concluded, religious belief is “an unlikely candidate for biological adaptation.”
Though the event at first had much in common with a religious service, beginning with song and prayer in a style familiar to Latter-day Saints, Sunstone facilitators make an effort not to assume any particular beliefs on the part of participants. After pointing out that there are over 500 extant groups in the tradition started by Joseph Smith, Sunstone president Lindsey Hansen-Park used her opening remarks to challenge symposium attendees to both treat the perspectives of others with respect and to consider themselves, regardless of belief, “legitimate heirs to [the Latter-day Saint] tradition.”
Ken Bown, a first-time symposium attendee, has wanted come to Sunstone for years, but until now it hasn’t fit his schedule. “We’re kind of insulated in Utah, you know — Latter-day Saint culture. It’s nice to get a different perspective,” he said.
Susan Sellers hadn’t registered for the full Sunstone conference, but was interested in Aslan’s lecture. After attending BYU Jerusalem, she saw value in learning about others’ religions. “For me, we’re all Heavenly Father’s children, even though we believe differently,” Sellers said. “I just like to hear other people’s perspectives and experiences.”
Of the 2,500 Sunstone attendees, some have disaffiliated from institutional churches and some remain. Many belong to branches of Mormonism less well-known than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Many find community and acceptance at Sunstone they don’t find in organized religion.
Though Aslan’s lecture didn’t address Mormon beliefs specifically, his subject had significance for believers of all stripes as he sought to draw a distinction between “religion” and “faith.” While faith is an emotion, like love, religion is merely an “institutionalized language” of metaphor and symbol we use to express our faith.
In this way, his perspective reflects that of many Sunstone attendees who have distanced themselves from the literal beliefs of religious institutions and yet remain involved in religion to varying degrees.
But Aslan’s central point was this: “Throughout the history of religion, there has been one symbol that has stood out as universal and supreme, one grand metaphor for God from which practically every other symbol and metaphor from nearly all the world’s religions has been derived. And that metaphor is us, the human being.” We understand the concept of God, Aslan said, only insofar as we can humanize it, ascribing to God human desires, strengths, weaknesses, virtues, vices, even a body. “In short, by transforming God into a human being.”
As he stated at the beginning of his lecture, Aslan himself is a believer. But the God he believes in is not, perhaps, what most people think of when they envision God. Aslan’s god is not a human — though he’s careful to specify that he would never try to convert anyone to this way of thinking. In this way, though, does his form of belief reflect the future of faith?
His variety of theism, he admits, is unsatisfactory. One can already hear the objections coming both from orthodox and unbeliever. But his vision of God does offer one option for a believer on the path of faith deconstruction. It also offers an answer to the challenge issued by Hansen-Park, who began the conference by inviting attendees to “resist the lessons and narratives that keep us small, that keep our god small.”
And while to some this may feel inadequate, for others, Mormon or not, who wish to hold onto belief in the face of uncertainty, a faith like the one offered by Aslan’s lecture may be the most viable future.