New direction for Sunstone?

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 7 2007 12:00 a.m. MDT

Whatever software-coding challenges John Dehlin has tackled in the past may look a little less daunting once he tackles his newest project.

As the new executive director of Sunstone — a magazine and scholarly forum devoted to examining the more controversial aspects of the LDS Church and its history — Dehlin will be breaking new philosophical ground in his stated goal to make the organization more "faith-affirming."

It remains to be seen how some of the forum's longtime devotees will embrace that new direction. The annual Sunstone Symposium begins Wednesday at the Salt Lake Sheraton City Centre.

Dehlin, who telecommutes from Logan to Boston as OpenCourse Ware Consortium director for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, doesn't shy away from acknowledging Sunstone's longtime reputation as a melting pot not only for scholarly LDS discussion, but often for dissent.

He and the forum's leadership team are reframing the way they will approach Sunstone's motto, "faith seeking understanding," though "that's what it has always meant to people who have been a part of it."

"I understand some people are scared because of fireworks of the past," he said. So the new vision statement says the group will be "an independent forum for open, thoughtful and constructive discussion of all things Mormon."

"Independent means we're not apologetic and we're not anti (LDS)," he said. "We lean toward faith and being pro-Mormon, but we want to create a neutral ground where people can ask questions.

"People need to find their own way in their faith journey. If someone is struggling with the First Vision story, we don't just say, 'Well, you need to simply believe it.' There are a certain number of people who need a neutral voice to allow them the freedom to make their decisions."

The history of the LDS Church — and the peculiarities of its claims regarding the nature of God and the origin of new and unique scriptural texts — has been fodder for critics since church founder Joseph Smith organized the faith in 1830. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints profess knowledge of spiritual truths based on faith in the claims Smith made about the church's divine origin as a "restoration" of true Christianity.

But some who were born into the faith or consider themselves believers are troubled by either historical episodes or doctrines that continue to generate media attention, particularly with Mitt Romney's presidential bid.

Dehlin said the word "open" in Sunstone's new vision statement "means we can discuss things openly people can't discuss elsewhere." Whatever the questions, "I need a safe place where I can talk to people like me and know they won't judge me," Dehlin said of Sunstone participants.

"Faithful means we're trying to deal with history and facts, finding the best of academia so opinions are informed rather than dogmatic."

He believes Sunstone has a larger role to play among Latter-day Saints who are not necessarily disaffected but who encounter information about the faith that they didn't learn from the church's formal education programs.

The belief comes from his own experience. Called to be a seminary teacher five years ago while working at Microsoft, Dehlin had gone through all the church's programs for youths and had served an LDS mission. But when he began studying the faith in order to teach his students, he came across aspects as an active member in his early 30s that he'd never known before.

"I had no idea Joseph Smith had multiple wives, that he translated the Book of Mormon by putting a peep stone in a hat, or that the practice of polygamy was continued unofficially in the church for several years after the Manifesto.

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