Harvard undergraduate explains her Mormon faith
On September 23, 2008, five Harvard undergraduates were interviewed by journalist for the Washington Post, Sally Quinn, about their religious convictions (video). Students represented Islam, Mormonism, Judaism, Presbyterianism and Buddhism. Before an audience of approximately 50 students, faculty and chaplains of diverse religions at Beren Hall at Harvard Hillel, these five students were asked to reveal their ‘spiritual biographies.’ The panel discussion was titled “Engaging Religious Difference: Personal Quests for Purpose” and was part of day long series of events on “Faith Live on the Harvard Campus: Personal Quest, Public Conversation, and Global Citizenship.”
Notably, Rachel Esplin (left in photo), an undergraduate studying East Asian Studies, and president of the Latter-day Saint Students Association, was asked to explain her background growing up in Idaho, and how coming to Harvard has impacted her religious views and convictions. I was extremely impressed at her ability to articulate her beliefs to others in universal terms and yet in a passionate manner.
Rachel did an excellent job framing the religious questions that she has faced by coming to Harvard: “What does religious diversity mean? What does it mean to be in a secular environment? What does it mean to come face to face with what I don’t know and what I have to learn?” In Rachel’s case, coming to Harvard has actually strengthen her faith by working through these issues. As she has learned about other faiths, her faith has been strengthened.
Quinn: “I know a lot of people are concerned and I’ve actually read books by ex-Mormons, particularly women, who say that the Mormon church, that there is not equality of women in the Mormon church. How do you feel about that?”
Rachel’s answer was lucid and well-presented. In part, she explained the Latter-day Saint interpretation of the optimistic role of Eve in garden of Eden and explained that the “rib” in the creation narrative symbolizes equality between man and woman. Rachel explains, “Although I believe God is perfect, I don’t believe religion is perfect. And although I believe my church is true, I don’t believe all the cultural elements that come with that are a hundred-percent true.”
Quinn quickly followed up with: “Can you give me some ideas of the elements of the Church you don’t think are actually true, or don’t follow or don’t believe wholeheartedly?”
Rachel was asked to explain the Joseph Smith story for the audience. Again, I was particularly impressed at not only how Rachel explained the history, but how she placed the story in the context of other religious narratives that one cannot passively accept. Such framing allows the audience to sympathize with her spiritual journey and to perhaps identify similar challenges in their own faith. Quinn inquired into the priesthood, temple secrecy, garments, and marriage.
One thing that stood out for me was Rachel’s ability to balance her explanation of Mormonism in collective terms and in personal terms. One of the struggles with explaining one’s faith to others is to what extent one explains the faith as an observer, one who can “interpret” religious meanings to those outside the faith, and to what extent one speaks not as an interpreter but as a conversant who communicates one’s personal faith in “I believe” terms rather than “we believe” terms. It isn’t easy to strike this balance. I felt Rachel did an excellent job in this area.
I want to thank Rachel for her preparation in this interview—it is clear she has thought seriously about these issues—and for being an excellent representative of her faith.
Day of Faith: Personal Quests for a Purpose – 1. Introduction
Day of Faith: Personal Quests for a Purpose – 2. Sally Quinn
Day of Faith: Personal Quests for a Purpose – 3. Rachel Esplin (Latter-day Saint)
Day of Faith: Personal Quests for a Purpose – 4. Sadia Ahsanuddin (Muslim)
Day of Faith: Personal Quests for a Purpose – 5. Ilan Caplan (Jewish)
Day of Faith: Personal Quests for a Purpose – 6. Liz Cook (Presbyterian)
Day of Faith: Personal Quests for a Purpose – 7. Mihiri Tillakaratne (Buddhist)