Scholars & Saints

Toward a Latter-day Saint Liberation Theology (feat. Ryan Ward)

August 15, 2023 UVA Mormon Studies Episode 41
Scholars & Saints
Toward a Latter-day Saint Liberation Theology (feat. Ryan Ward)
Show Notes Transcript

Ryan Ward is a professor of experimental psychology. But during his time serving as a Latter-day Saint bishop several years ago in New York, the needs and concerns of his congregation motivated him to study theology in his spare time. We're chatting today about his recent book, And There Was No Poor Among Them: Liberation, Salvation, and the Meaning of Restoration (Kofford, 2023). We talk about liberation theology, atonement, the nature of God, and Joseph Smith's vision of a covenant community. 

Scholars & Saints – Ep. 041 – “Toward a Latter-day Saint Liberation Theology”

Stephen Betts: Ryan, it's great to have you on the show today talking about your new book with Kofford, And There Was No Poor Among Them: Liberation, Salvation, and the Meaning of the Restoration. So, Ryan, great to have you. 

Ryan Ward: Yeah, good to be here. 

SB: I want to hear the background to this book. That's always my first question when I talk to people about their books is what's the story? Because you're an experimental psychologist, right? How does an experimental psychologist from southeastern Idaho end up writing a book about liberation theology? 

RW: Yeah, well, it's a good question. And sometimes it seems kind of crazy when I think about it myself. So, I never really had planned to write a book. Like you said, my training is in experimental psychology. My research focuses on sort of the neurobiology that underlies basic learning and yeah, so I don't have specific training in theology or history or anything like that. And I guess the story behind the book was that I'm also an active member of the church and had served as a bishop over the course of several years. And just based on a lot of things, interactions I was having with people in my congregation, friends who were going through various things and sort of trying to figure out their place in an authentic engagement with the church. I started to feel really compelled to research the Atonement, right? I mean, it seems kind of simple, but it's also the sort of the foundation of everything we believe. 

And so, I started reading a bunch of books, right? Books, articles, whatever, [LDS general] conference talks. I read widely within LDS scholarship. And then I started turning to general Christianity because there was a sense that the meaning of the Atonement had changed throughout the history of Christianity, and I wasn't really finding much on that within church scholarship, so I wanted to get other perspectives.

So, the book is kind of the culmination of two lines of reading. So, the first is, like I said, I became really interested in this idea of Atonement. And particularly when you go outside of the LDS tradition, the concept of salvation comes up a lot, right? And so, I became interested in the kind of evolution of the concept of salvation. And just reading a lot about that, and then the other line of work that this book comes from is historical reading. Like, I've been, for the last 15 years or so, just reading a lot of history, kind of feeling like my education in that regard was kind of lacking you know, particularly having lived in New Zealand for the last, you know, almost 10 years. You just kind of get the idea that you have kind of a blinkered view of history coming from the U.S. educational system. 

So, I was reading a lot of history, a lot of economics, particularly around the sort of centuries before the industrial revolution, but also about kind of the way that the U.S. has implemented foreign policy and things like that and I kind of stumbled across a lot of things around Latin American foreign policy and things like that. And so here liberation theology comes in, right? Because liberation theology is this response by the Catholic clergy in Latin America to the injustices that occurred because of the state use of repression and violence. But what a lot of people don't recognize is that those state policies were directly related to the implementation of widespread free market reforms in government and the U.S. played a kind of a major role in overthrowing lots of governments and things like that. And so here comes liberation theology. Right? And I just. I don't know, for whatever reason, the things that I was looking for in terms of understanding salvation and an authentic and practical engagement in religion, in today's world just seemed to be really encapsulated in this approach that was informed by direct interaction with poor and oppressed people during, you know, the ‘60s and ‘70s in these countries, and I just, I don't know, like I was so moved by it that I started to look at a lot of other things in my faith tradition through that lens and the more I read scripture and things through that lens, the more it just made a lot of sense and kind of cohered into this kind of complete narrative for me.

I mean, I know there's still, you talk about reading scripture and everybody has to read kind of selectively, depending on what you're looking for, but it helped me start to understand Jesus's ministry in ways that I never had and I started seeing things in the Gospels that were just so obvious once I started looking for them, but that we really don't focus on too much in the church.

So then I'm reading a bunch of theology, right, about salvation and atonement and Jesus. And I'm also reading a bunch of history, right, about economics and sort of the social and political and economic movements leading up to the Industrial Revolution. And then one day I'm reading an article or a book, and the year 1820 just jumped off the page, right? And I said, I hadn't made that connection before. And I said, okay, 1820, that's the height of the industrial revolution, but it's also the beginning of the Restoration. And so, I got this idea, “Well, what if the Restoration was a response to all of these social and economic movements that have led in the last couple hundred years to this sort of globalization of, you know, these kind of economic systems that prioritize individual maximization of benefit over communal good, right?”

And, like I said, I never had planned to write a book, but I thought, “Okay, well, surely somebody's thought of this before, right? I mean, I'm not a genius or anything, but it seemed like a pretty, when you thought about it in those terms, not an obvious link, but something that would have been explored. And I just, I couldn't find anything. So the more I talked to friends and... My wife about it. I said, well, there's nothing on this, but I think it's really important. And they said, well, you got to write it. I said I can't write it. You know, I have a job. I have students that I have to mentor and I have classes that I have to teach. I'm still serving as a bishop at the time. Right. And so, it's kind of like. Well, all right. So, I just started feeling more and more like I had something to say. So, I just started getting up a couple hours early every day, writing for two hours before I got ready for work in the morning, sometimes taking lunch breaks, you know, just jotting down thoughts as they came to me.

And the process of writing took five months from start to finish of a full draft of the book. And I think it was because I feel like everything that I had read over the past 10 to 15 years just came together in a way that was, quite frankly, miraculous for me, having never written a book. And I think I feel that it was inspired and so I just, you know, pulled quotes and anecdotes and things from everything that I had been reading and it just sort of like wrote itself.

SB: Yeah, Ryan, give us a sense for how you see liberation theology. I mean, liberation theology is an incredibly diverse field. We have, it starts like you noted, starts in Latin America. We also have black liberation theology, we have queer liberation theology, feminist liberation theology, right? How do you conceptualize liberation theology, particularly within a Latter-day Saint scriptural framework?

RW: Yeah, so you make a good point, and I think one of the things that's missing in a lot of conversations about liberation theology these days that have sort of been co-opted by different political interests is how diverse it really is, right? I mean, I think at the heart of it, liberation theology is, if I could sort of like give a really simple definition is how to apply the good news of the gospel in contexts of oppression. And that looks like a lot of different things, right, depending on the particular oppressed and marginalized groups. But I think if you define liberation theology as that, and then you start to look at what the scriptures tell us about God's action in history, you will see particularly the sort of iconic example in the Old Testament is the freeing of Israel from slavery. After he makes the covenant with Abraham, that's kind of God's first big action in Israel's history. Right? And throughout the Old Testament, when God acts in Israel's history, it's to liberate them or to support them in the face of oppression from different, you know, powers and kingdoms and things like that.

And God also has a very particular regard for the poor and the marginalized. And so I think in terms of the way that we can use liberation theology in the church, I mean, I don't think we need to be threatened by it. One of the things that people say about liberation theology is that it advocates for, like, violent overthrow of the government or, like, replacing governments. Right? And to a certain extent, I think that's true in some branches of it, but it's also, I feel, a natural result of the other thing that liberation theology teaches, which is we need to view one another in our shared humanity, right? And the outcome of truly viewing one another in our shared humanity and, you know, in our parlance, “children of God,” right? Brothers and sisters is that these types of systems will change. We won't tolerate the kinds of systemic injustices that produce poor and marginalized groups because it's just not, it's not okay for a fellow human being and child of God to be treated that way. 

SB: Ryan, I have to ask you a tough question that's important to me because it's something that I wrestle with in my work as well. You present as a white male and to use liberation theology that especially you draw extensively on Latin American liberation theology. How do you navigate this prophetic mode that I take you to be inhabiting. How do you reconcile inhabiting a prophetic mode, how do you as a person who's white male person of privilege reconcile using liberation theology working with this in this way?

RW: Yeah, so that was something that I tried to be really aware of in the writing of the book because I think it's a very critical point that we have to be aware of. Right? And I recognize that my position as a white male makes it so that some people will view what I'm doing as suspect. Right? I don't want to come across as having kind of like a white savior complex or anything like that. My purpose in writing the book is to expose a Latter-day Saint audience to liberation theology. The ideas in there for people who are familiar with work by people like Jon Sobrino, Dorothy Sowell, James Cone, you know, these are, these are some big names in those types of theologies that you mentioned.

I'm not pretending to present something new necessarily, but I'm trying to expose people to these thinkers who have been around for decades. Right? And, and my hope in doing so is to show Latter-day Saints that there are people who have been thinking about these issues in very sophisticated ways and developing a theology that is rich and deep and can contribute to our own thinking about, you know, the way that we view our own unique contributions to Christianity and theology. And my contribution, I hope, with the book is to help people think of maybe a new way of framing the Restoration that includes these kind of more economic and kind of social and political concerns that have kind of been sidelined, I feel, in our pursuit of salvation in the next life. So, I really hope that I don't come across as being the person who has the answers and co-opting a theology that's been developed by minorities in a way that is insensitive to, to their struggle. Your point is very well taken. I'm always aware that that's an issue in how I present myself.

Nicholas Shrum: I think I came at reading this book from, um, from a Latter day Saint perspective. I'm a religious studies student. I have a background in religion and then in history and American studies. And so, to me, I think that there were a lot of the arguments, the elements of your book that spoke to me. I found it very moving and a lot of it was very familiar at times. I think the way that you constructed your argument was refreshing at the same time. And so, things I was familiar with, but also framed in a way that's just very refreshing. 

I'm curious about how you envisioned from start to finish, and maybe even how that has changed since the book has been published, how you envisioned these words and the vision that you had along with it landing with particular audiences. I don't think that many Latter-day Saints are accustomed to theologizing, or they're not accustomed to, as Stephen mentioned, a prophetic mode. These are all kind of academic religious studies terms that we do more often than we think. But how did you think about that and frame it and in some sense translate that to the people that you're envisioning the book being for?

RW That's a good question because that's something that I wrestled with in the writing of the book because I was coming from this topic from a place of genuine curiosity, but also somewhat frustrated over the last, you know, few decades of my life at just how embedded sort of a conservative ideology seems to be within the majority of the Latter-day Saint community.

And so, I was hoping to target an audience, first of all, there's a couple of things, right? When I was a bishop in New York City, we had a great, great ward. And I felt that it was full of people who were asking sincere questions and trying to really figure out how to navigate their faith with authenticity, not sugarcoating the difficult points, but also like, holding on to the things that were valuable to them. And when you're in that type of an environment, you can start to feel kind of critical towards the institutional church in some of the ways that you feel it's letting people down or not speaking to contemporary needs or whatever. So I was coming from, from a place of, I don't want to say critique, but more I hope what comes across in the book is kind of like an impassioned pleading for us to recognize how some of the ways that we think about things are short-sighted, right? When we think about things in the global context, in the context of humanity as a whole. And so, 1 of the audiences that I really wanted to target with the book was people who felt that way. Right? And one of the reasons something you may have noticed. Which not a lot of people have highlighted, kind of surprisingly to me, is that I don't use very many Latter-day Saint sources in the book. That was a conscious choice for me. One of the reasons was because I was blown away by all of this scholarship that I just had never encountered before. But I also was targeting an audience who was maybe a bit fatigued by the constant apologetics that a lot of scholarship seems to gravitate towards.

Like you said, Nicholas, we're not used to doing theology in the church very much, right? We've been very good at apologetics for the first couple of centuries, and then sort of like staking out our unique place in Christianity and like our own personal individual mandate, right, within religion and things. But we haven't really been super good at doing theology , right, which is kind of an exercise in, Jon Sobrino, probably my favorite liberation theologian says, figuring out what God means in response to reality. Right? So, looking at the way the world is and trying to figure out what that means about how God is acting in history. And so, what I hoped to do was give that audience who maybe felt a little disillusioned, a reason to stay because I think that there are reasons to stay, and I hope that a lot of the people who consider themselves maybe at the end of their rope do stay, because I feel like the only way that we can evolve and mature as an authentic religion is if those people stick around, and we work together to make those types of changes.

But so, yeah, I was targeting that audience. Here's a reframing that I hope can give you a new way of viewing the things that you value in the church and maybe a way to stick in there a little bit longer, you know? Because many of my friends and associates have left, and I don't blame them. I think people come up with their own struggles and challenges and sometimes it's a safer place to be outside than inside. But it does break my heart because I do find so much of value in the community in so many aspects. And so, I was hoping to give the more progressive member of the church something to hold on to if they felt that the church was out of touch with sort of some of the basic problems of the world today.

And the other audience that I was hoping to target was just a general scholarly audience who is interested in the history of evolution of Christian ideas and their relationship to economic and sort of social and political concepts. And then, you know, their relationship to Mormon studies, right? I'm not a Mormon studies buff, like I don't run around in those circles. And so I'm very curious to see how this is received by those groups. My biggest fear is that some people who know what they're doing are going to say that I'm full of crap or whatever, right? But hopefully I've framed it in such a way that it's both accessible and scholarly.

And the one thing that I will say has maybe changed in the writing and just evolved as the book has been written, um, is I have this really great friend whose name is Deborah, and she has been really passionate about these ideas as well from the beginning. And so, I've shared bits of writing with her, and she's helped me with my ideas and making them more accessible. And one of the things that she did for the book, and I acknowledge her extensively in the, in the acknowledgments for this, is it was easy for me during the writing of the book to come at it from this mode of, “Well, this is the way we tend to think about things in the church. Here's why it's wrong and this is the right way.” And every time I did that, she said, “Don't do that. Like, you're undercutting your message by taking this kind of antagonistic, critical mode.” And she said, “Just tell it the way you think it is and leave it at that and let people make their own conclusions.” So, I credit Deb for making the book much more generous in its approach towards the sort of contemporary positions of the church. And I hope and I do think that it makes it much more accessible and hopeful, impactful for a wider audience. 

SB: Ryan, I want to dig into the book a little bit. You envision liberation theology as compatible and I think I agree with you that it's compatible in a variety of ways with some of the major theological concepts that Joseph Smith put forward in the early years of the church, particularly his idea of Zion and the consecrated community, the “covenant community” is what you call it in the book. Talk to us about the distinction you make between individual and communal salvation and how that fits into these ideas of bringing in liberation theology into contact with Latter day Saints scriptural theology. 

RW: Yeah, so this is something that my own thinking is still evolving on. And I think when I first started writing the book and reading these ideas, the idea of communal salvation was so revelatory to me. Because as I go through in the book, you know, the idea of individual salvation didn't really exist in the time of ancient Israel. It wasn't really even a thing in Hebrew thought, and certainly not the afterlife as we tend to think of it, right? And so salvation very much meant this communal liberation and sustaining in anything that would help everybody flourish, right? As a community, as a people, as a whole. And it sort of got changed during the Middle Ages to this idea of an individual transaction between like between people and God, right? Jesus pays for our sins so that we can be saved as individuals. And so, I've gone back and forth with my dad a lot about this, this topic. It's kind of funny because I feel like in the early stages, I was so enamored with this idea of communal salvation and kind of put off by some of the ways that we tend to talk about it in our own tradition, in ways that reinforce this kind of Western individualism and stuff like that.

And pursuit of our own salvation without thinking about that our communities and nations and world are kind of impacted by decisions. I maybe pushed a little bit too hard on the communal only angle. This is something that my dad and I constantly discuss, but what I'm now sort of coming to believe, I think, is that there is an individual element. So there's an individual change of heart or conversion, if you will, that comes by faith in Christ, and I would define that as a recognition of who Jesus was in his appropriate social and historical context and what his ministry was trying to do to change the lives of his followers as it related to their particular social concerns.

So you view Jesus in his ministry, in its true light, which then changes your heart in such a way that you turn outward. Right? And that is the individual component, which I think then enables salvation to occur, which I'm arguing in the book, at least encompasses, if not is primarily defined by this kind of temporal restoration, liberation, making sure that everybody in humanity can flourish.

So, there is an individual component, but I don't think that it consists of an individual salvation in the way that maybe we traditionally think of it. And I don't necessarily believe in theories of atonement that say that, like, the primary purpose of the Atonement was to pay a penalty for our individual sins. So, as I detail in chapter 3 in the book, those ideas about what atonement means have shifted throughout the history of Christianity, and the penal substitution theory, as it's called, is a relatively late development. I don't think it's consistent with some of the other ideas that we have about God, frankly. So, yeah, to answer your question, there's an individual component to an ongoing historical salvation, and the two can't be separated, if that makes sense. Hopefully my dad would be happy with that answer. 

SB: So, Ryan, you critique the notion of the development of what you call a universal transcendent God in early Christianity that replaces this historical figure of Jesus Christ as an advocate for the poor and the marginalized. You recover, like other liberation theologians, you recover a focus on a historical Jesus, which to me seems, I think a lot of Latter-day Saints would probably disagree about the importance of the historical Jesus, as opposed to a kind of Book of Mormon, transhistorical Jesus who's still very much interested in historical salvation, but historical salvation within the broader context of a kind of otherworldly salvation as well.

So, I see those two things very like closely imbricated in in Book of Mormon theology and other aspects of Joseph Smith's thought. What draws you to the historical Jesus as a compelling figure over against a kind of transcendent version of Jesus Christ, as you would see in, say, 3 Nephi in the Book of Mormon?

RW: Hmm. Well, yeah, it's a really good question. And I would love to hear your thoughts on that as well, because that's something that I struggled with because, as you say, the Jesus that we tend to portray, the way that we tend to think of Jesus is as this, you know, timeless, eternal being who's been around, you know, since before the world was, who has this kind of what you might say, cosmic agenda, right, to save humanity. But we always think of it very much in a kind of spiritual sense, right? That's the primary motive that Jesus has for doing what he's done. And we almost sometimes view it as, I mention it in the book, his mortal ministry was essentially just a vehicle for him to affect the Atonement, which then enables this spiritual progression for us, right?

And the details of his mortal ministry are less important than the act of the Atonement in Gethsemane and on the cross, right? And then the resurrection. And the way that liberation theology tends to place Jesus back in his historical context, I think was revelatory for me, because it very much, it views Jesus not as some transcendent, you know, God-person who kind of came into mortality so that he could perform the Atonement and then left, but as somebody who was very interested in the material and temporal conditions of the people he ministered to, right?

And if you think about it in those terms, you can then begin to inquire into other areas of scholarship, like, okay, what is, what were the historical and the social and economic conditions of Jesus’s followers? In Jesus's day, there was no separation between the political and the spiritual, right? These people weren't necessarily thinking about things in a spiritual or temporal sense separately, like we tend to. And so, the material conditions of their lives and the way, you know, I talk about in chapter two, the way that they felt the social and economic systems allowed for them to interact with God and to renew divine favor and things like that, that would have been crucial to the way that they viewed their reality.

And one of the things that I talk about in the book is that Jesus was functioning in this mode, this prophetic mode that the prophets in ancient Israel functioned in of helping the people actually open their eyes to the reality of their situation and then giving them eyes to see a new way, a way forward to a new reality, right? And so I think I don't know necessarily how to reconcile this view of Jesus or a God who is intricately involved in historical liberation with The Book of Mormon, some aspects of the Book of Mormon Jesus, or God, that is more transcendent and not necessarily concerned with specifics of history, but has as an overarching goal, this kind of spiritual salvation.

I think it's important to hold those two things in tension. It's really too bad that we don't have the kind of scholarship available for the Book of Mormon that we do for the Bible, just because of the way that we don't have access to the initial records or, you know, because I wonder what that would teach us about the way that the writers of the Book of Mormon constructed their narratives and their understanding about, um, who Jesus was and what Jesus was trying to do for the Nephites and Lamanites, but also by extension for us, right? For humanity in general.

SB: I'm just thinking, I mean, I see you working through this problem, and I wrote something recently with Phil Barlow kind of working through in a similar way of saying, well, “We can't leave behind suffering, the suffering Christ. We can't leave behind the mortal Jesus because that's vital to the Christ event.” Right? But I want to push back a little bit and because my reading of the Book of Mormon is very much that, you know, the Book of Mormon God is interested intimately in physical salvation and, and deliverance in a physical way, not just the spiritual way. And I think that's how Joseph Smith understands him as well. You know, particularly, I mean, if you look at early Mormonism, the way they, they look at, you know, the migration to Utah, they very much think about it in terms of like, “God is leading us, God is protecting us.” So, I think that that has to be part of it here, but I really like your emphasis. And I like Nicholas, I felt the prophetic mode as you're writing. I felt, you know, “Okay, this needs to be part of the way we think,” but I do want to, I mean, I think one useful way to think about this is I had a conversation. Recent podcast episode with Rosalynde Welch at the, at BYU. And, you know, she was working through in the Book of Ether Moroni’s sort of atemporal, transhistorical view of, well, what is, yeah, how do we relate to the Christ event, either before or after it occurs, and her point is kind of that the whole thrust of his appropriation or engagement with Pauline theology, Pauline covenant theology, right, is that you in a certain way have to reject a temporal mode of viewing the Christ event to collapse the time so that the Christ event is present to you, regardless of your temporal orientation towards it.

So I mean, to me, like, I think in Latter-day Saint theology, for me, it's important not to reject the transcendence aspect, but I think you're right to push the immanence, you're right to push the prophetic mode that you inhabit is kind of trying to awaken Latter-day Saints to this way of looking at the world, saying, “Look, these are structural issues, these are structural problems, here's some ways of thinking about it.”

But for me, at least, I hesitate to go as far as, you know, you write in the end of the book that you see, or at least you viewed it at the time of writing, temporal liberation as the fundamental meaning of salvation. At least from a, at least thinking through, you know, the way that I view Joseph Smith, I think he would probably reject, I mean, I think he would certainly reject that. Because on the one hand, he doesn't view temporal and spiritual as separate, right? He doesn't view physical and, you know, everything is spirit, all spirit is matter or whatever, you know, God, you know, for him says that I've never given you a temporal commandment, right? So, how, I mean, how do you think about, for instance, in the Book of Mormon, right? We have numerous examples of stories of deliverance, a huge emphasis on Exodus. Right. Nephi is going over and over, you know, remember the Exodus Alma, remember the Exodus, but you have this story that I think encapsulates my question for you, which is you have Alma and Amulek, these two leaders in the book of Mormon who are witnessing a mass martyrdom event of women and children.

And Amulek turns to Alma and he says, we have the, we have the divine power. We could stop this. And Alma says, no, we're not going to do that because we have to basically allow them to make the choice to martyr these people. And I mean, I've always struggled with that passage, right? Because on the one hand, in other cases in the Book of Mormon even you have divine deliverance. And in this case, you know, we could, we could just, we could just say, well, this is an example of how, you know, human beings justify, you know, a belief system that claims to have divine power to do supernatural things, but maybe that doesn't actually exist. So, they're just telling these stories to themselves to explain their own impotence.

On the other hand, you know, the Book of Mormon's own narrative clearly believes in supernatural events and clearly believes that these people have this power. So, I feel like that gets at this tension between, well, you know, there's this temporal salvation. There's also this other salvation and in between, maybe the, the nub of the issue is agency. And so, you know, that's, and that's the other thing is like, you know, you talk about agency as the, I think it was Paul Reeve I was talking to recently who pointed this out that in Latter-day Saint theology, that's our theodicy, agency. It has to be there to make the whole system work. And that's how you explain why God lets all these bad things happen to people. Why God lets the Holocaust happen. Why God lets these horrible, you know, structural oppressions happen. It's because agency is that important. So, that's sort of a rambling meditation on, on what you say. But I want to make it clear that I really appreciated your message, but I also felt in places that I couldn't go that far with you.

I had to say, “Well, I'm not sure I'm going to go that far” because of the issue of the transcendence. So how do you deal? You don't have to answer this if you don't want to, but I mean, to you is there a transcendent Jesus Christ, or is this why you have to rely on the historical Jesus because there is no transcendent Jesus Christ, or how do you deal with the issue of transcendence and immanence?

RW: Yeah, it's a really, really good question, and I think it gets to the heart of a lot of the struggles that, well, I personally, and I think many members of the church, and maybe Christians in general have with these ideas that focus so much on historical Jesus. And, you know, I was actually just having a conversation the other day with my wife, as we've been driving around, you know, the U.S. on this three-month trip. And she's reading the book now, which is awesome. And she's telling me what she does and does not like about, about what I've written, which is super helpful. And one of the things that she said is, “I don't like the term, the historical Jesus.” And it sort of got my hackles up a little bit because I was like, you know, I'm coming at it from this position of well, it's a signifier for this entire line of scholarship, right, that understands the importance of placing Jesus in this historical context. Some of that has been a bit openly antagonistic towards, uh more, I guess you could say, faith-based perspective, right, which focuses more on the transcendent Jesus, or Christ, as people call it. 

Her point was, “You're presenting this as two options that people have to choose from when what's really going on is you need to understand this Jesus figure as both of these things.” And, you know, I think your question makes me realize the wisdom in that comment, even though it was a bit frustrating at the time. Because what I'm starting to view this whole theological project as is, I don't feel like we have to choose one or the other over against the other option, right? I mean, our understanding, I think, of deity, and the nature of God, and God's action in history, and even things like, as you say, transcendence and immanence, is so limited by what we can even comprehend that I feel that it's just important to acknowledge there are many modes of thinking about these issues that can be useful depending on our particular life circumstances. Right? So, in the book, as you say, I do push pretty hard for this particular view, but I don't believe, and I don't want to say I don't believe, but I'm personally wrestling with my own ideas about this stuff, right? But the reason why the book I think functions in this, I don't want to say absolutist because I don't think I completely disregard the other, but it's because I view this perspective as so important for a Latter-day Saint audience that I really just want to emphasize that.

And many people have written about, right, the transcendent Jesus. I mean, that's pretty much the way we think about it. And so, I wasn't necessarily interested in resolving a discrepancy or anything like that, but mostly presenting this as an option for people to think about. The way that God and Jesus have acted in history. And so I don't think one or the other is totally correct, like, thinking about one or the other as correct to the exclusion of the other position is useful or frankly possible, given our limited understanding.

And I mean, I touch on it a little bit, but ideas about the historical versus the transcendent Jesus and Christ. We can point to the evolution of those ideas over the course of Christianity. I just think we need to be really, really careful about saying we know certain things about the way that God and Jesus are. And just be open to living in a space of tension that holds these things, yeah, in tension with one another because I feel like, and I mentioned this in a long footnote in the conclusion. I don't know how many people are going to read that long footnote, but um, uh, we can't use the definitions of God that have been worked out in a particular historical and social context and apply that God to the problems of today because you're going to be essentially limiting your ability to conceptualize a God that can adapt.

And that, in a way, what you're talking about is this transcendence, this kind of, I mean, if God is transcendent, our understanding of God certainly is not, right? If there's an absolute eternal God, our understanding of that God has evolved according to our own social and historical circumstances. And so, for us to say at any given point in time that, okay, now we have a full picture, I think is naive and frankly prideful. And we need to be open to, as I say, in that footnote, let God be God. Right? And continually be surprised and amazed by the God that is revealed. And the only way that we can experience a revelation of God is in history. Right? And so, your question about the story of Alma and Amulek. I have no idea. It's incredibly heartbreaking, and I don't know why God sometimes chooses to save people and let others suffer. You know, I don't know why I have been blessed to have a comfortable, successful life where other people struggle with poverty and depression and drug abuse and just can never seem to catch a break. And I think your point about agency is spot on as well. There's something about agency that's very important in all of this, but it doesn't necessarily explain why sometimes God seems to transcend human agency and act on behalf of predominantly poor and oppressed groups in history, right? So, I hope that answered your question a little bit.

NS: Well, so to continue on this theme a little bit that you've been discussing, and Ryan, thank you for your thoughts, I was struck when reading the Introduction, as you're proposing these two ideas of salvation between an individual and communal salvation, you give the reader a little bit of your background and your own upbringing. And I was personally struck because as you were describing growing up as a boy in southeastern Idaho, the things that are on the mind of a teenage boy, the concerns, I couldn't help but think that this was very similar to how Joseph Smith describes his own encounter and his own journey with figuring out some of these questions.

So, I was actually quite struck about how Joseph Smith is concerned for his own soul, right? And this is the prophet of the Restoration. He's going to bring about these amazing, you know, new ideas about salvation and And politics and economics and it starts off with these concerns right that he has for his own personal soul. So, I guess part of my question is, is how you envision and how you think about the Restoration as continuing, but also something that has been that exists in its own context. So, for example, Joseph Smith being concerned about his own salvation, we could say that that was part of a particular part of New York during the Second Great Awakening. That was the religious rhetoric that he was partaking in, and so therefore it influenced the questions that he was asking. What does your text offer to this idea of an ongoing Restoration, maybe paralleled through how you see your own journey of understanding salvation as individualistic versus communal, and maybe even how Joseph Smith and his life through the Restoration, through the church's various periods, how that understanding takes off.

RW: Yeah, well, I think what I really didn't want to have happen with this book is for it to just seem kind of like a vanity project where I already had my conclusions in mind before I wrote it, and I just kind of twisted history and scripture to support my position. Okay? And so, that's why I've tried to take this kind of, like, macro view of the idea of salvation throughout Judeo-Christian history.

And what I hope that does is frame the Restoration within its historical context in the long term, right? Because if we do believe that God is transcendent and is working towards, you know, the eternal life and exaltation of man, humankind, then we have to believe that God is moving history towards a specific end. Right? And so what I hope the book does is to place the Restoration in its appropriate long-term historical context, and to give people a new way of thinking about the Restoration as a big deal, right? Not just because the true Church was now once again on the earth, but because here is God moving against these social and political movements and ideologies that are just going to ruin millions of people in the coming centuries and giving the Saints and Joseph Smith and anyone who wants to buy into this idea a different way of looking at things and hearkening back to the original idea of this covenant community that God set up with Israel, right?

And so, for me, when I was able to, I hope cohesively. put together that from beginning to Restoration, it makes me grateful, it makes me even more in awe of sort of the way that God is working in the world and in history. And it really, like I said in the intro, I feel convicted. If this is really a key part of the new and everlasting covenant, we have a lot of work to do, right? And we can't ignore the suffering of our fellow human beings. Now, I mean, I think, many, many other scholars have explored the particular historical circumstances of Joseph Smith and the early church much better than I can even hope to speak to. But I think we just always have to keep that in mind.

Joseph Smith was not a transcendent individual. He was not blessed with a certain omnipotence or even, I want to be careful when I say this, even given privileged understanding about things. But he was a repository for revelation, but the way that he perceived and proffered that revelation was a function of his own historical context, right? And we just can't escape that as human beings. That's the only way that we can both receive and offer revelation. And so, in terms of Joseph Smith's own ideas, I mean, I think there's a lot to support, you know, the position that I take in the book on the early revelations of the church. And I don't know how his view changed over the course of his prophetic ministry.

We can probably trace how these views changed over subsequent prophets and administrations, but I think Joseph Smith was functioning in this mode of just receiving just so much new stuff all the time and just struggling with a way to articulate what he was receiving. And one of the things that I think is tricky about the way that we sometimes think about prophets and Joseph Smith in particular is that he was revealing the ultimate reality outside of any sort of historical or intellectual context that he was working in. And I think it's useful to view even the revelations that Joseph Smith received as being his best attempts to encapsulate something that was so big that we don't even necessarily have words or conceptual frameworks to articulate it. Right? 

And so, one of the things that I think about when I think about your question of the ongoing Restoration is how are our ideas of the way that God is and God's action in history and his eventual goals for humanity, I say his, but I mean, “their,” you know, Heavenly Mother and Heavenly Father, how are their goals for humanity? How can we understand them? Right. And how do we even understand things like the afterlife? And, I mean, I think sometimes we like to pretend that we have a much more clear cut understanding of these things than we actually do. And so, what I think the ongoing restoration is, is how are these ideas, these new and expansive ideas relevant to the problems that we face in our daily lives? And what does our theology have to say to people who feel that the current conceptualizations of the way that we view God and salvation and the church are leaving them behind don't address their real concerns?

SB: Ryan, before we go, I really want to hear, in the culminating chapter you talk about Joseph Smith's idea of Zion as this community of consecration and emptying oneself. Can you run us through the ways that you're thinking about this in a liberation context and especially the idea of how this is supposed to take care of the poor and the marginalized? 

RW: You know, one of the ideas that I came across when I was reading was this idea of emptying. It's known in traditional Christian theology as “kenosis,” which goes back to this idea that in one of Paul's epistles to the Philippians that Jesus emptied himself, emptied himself of divinity really? Right? God emptied God's self of divinity in the human manifestation of Jesus, right? And this was unheard of for a deity to do, and within liberation theology, that signifies God's willingness to identify with humanity in so much solidarity that God became human so that could suffer the things that we suffer. And during that last section of that last chapter, it just really struck me that this idea of consecration that the early Saints had to sign up for, right? That's basically what they had to do if they were going to be members involved an emptying of themselves of wealth and in as much as wealth signifies privilege and status emptying themselves of wealth and status and viewing one another in their shared humanity really as equal beings in God's eyes and in their community. And so, for me, I think that the underlying principle of consecration is just that. 

It's not just giving your money away, right? It's not just leveling wealth. It's emptying ourselves of anything that stops us from viewing one another in our shared humanity, whether that's biases, ideologies, in some cases, it can be physical wealth because, you know, the rich and the poor, they tend to Other one another. They tend to view one another as kind of separate categories of individuals. And I think that once we really take that principle of consecration, of emptying ourselves of everything that views that stops us from viewing one another in our shared humanity, as I said at the beginning, we won't tolerate these types of differences and this type of wealth disparity.

And along with that comes necessarily a change of social and economic and political systems, right? So, I think at the political level, we can use whatever persuasion or political power methods we have to try to affect changes that increase justice and equity. But, and this is where it gets back to that individual level, right? At the individual level, we have to be willing to empty ourselves and then how that relates to the idea of atonement is, and I talk about this in chapter 5, that I kind of view atonement, and I think we have good grounds to view atonement as reconciliation of estranged parties, right, and healing of trauma that comes from sin, which I define as fractured relationships, right?

And here we are in today's world is so much of our economic and political ideologies are fracturing. What I view, I guess, as covenant relationships, right? The covenant relationships that we have to be in fellowship with one another in community with one another and Jesus's life in ministry and ongoing activity points the way to an ongoing atonement, which depends on us following Jesus's example and emptying ourselves. And I just find a lot of power in that idea, and in that symbolism, and I think it does, it really does point the way towards this kind of individual conversion, which then will lead to this kind of mass social and economic movement, which is related to, you know, alleviating the circumstances of poverty and things for people in the world.

SB: Ryan, thanks for chatting with us today about your recent book, And There Was No Poor Among Them: Liberation, Salvation and the Meaning of Restoration. 

RW: Great to be with you guys. Thank you so much for having me.

*Transcript has been edited