“Collaboration is a sort of magic”—Jacob Rennaker on the 2015 Mormon Theology Seminar

09.17.2015 | The Maxwell Institute

The 2015 Mormon Theology Seminar recently wrapped up in New York City (see here). We asked seminar participants to reflect on their experiences, offering a glimpse at what the Seminar’s all about. This post features Jacob Rennaker. Posts from other seminar participants will follow.—BHodges
Jacob Rennaker_NY_The Tempest

Jacob Rennaker

Collaboration is a sort of magic. In the world of our minds, we’re typically isolated from one another. We get most of our information by reading to ourselves the written words of others, and when (or if) we do respond to that information, we usually do so much later. This type of delayed response has its advantages—our responses can allow us to carefully fortify our own internal world against those who see, think, or feel differently than we do. Collaboration with others in person, on the other hand, conjures an environment where you are forced outside of your own carefully constructed reality and into a wild wilderness of opposing (though sometimes overlapping) viewpoints. Collaboration is a dangerous magic.

Georgios Choumnos, Metrical Paraphrase of Genesis and Exodus, 15th-16th century. British Library.

Here’s the thing about collaboration—it’s dangerous. You never know how it’s going to turn out. It can’t be controlled in the same way that your previous internal world was so carefully managed. You don’t know what sorts of strange ideas someone else might surprise you with, or how you will respond to those unexpected ideas. You can’t build upon your old defenses, because the magic of collaboration can infiltrate your defenses on any—and all—sides. But there’s something else that makes collaboration dangerous—you are also forced to face what you truly do and do not know, and that sort of vulnerability is on immediate and persistent display before all of the others in your group. To a certain degree, we are all emperors who weave our own false robes—socially, intellectually, and spiritually. And it’s scary to realize that, in certain areas, you’re actually naked. When that discovery happens in a group setting, there’s always a chance that others will see your nakedness, and judge you for it. However, if you’re part of a group that has committed to act charitably toward each other, some of that fear can assuaged—the magic of collaboration can also summon the bonds of charity. As the group works together in this sort of setting, each person can learn to embrace their nakedness, while working together to weave robes that are certainly more humble than their gaudy self-made clothing, but which are also much more durable, and beautiful. Collaboration is a powerful magic. Practicing the magic of collaboration fundamentally changes you. Once you have seen the world through several (or eight) sets of eyes, your natural vision feels terribly myopic. You recognize that your individual sight, while more valuable than you had before supposed, is not enough—will never be enough. But because you have experienced this magic first hand, you can now conjure similarly collaborative environments wherever you’d like, and can help others to realize this power for themselves in an infinite variety of settings. Collaborative Theology By virtue of its collaborative nature, the Mormon Theology Seminar is, in its very essence, magic. I experienced this collaborative magic, which took me out of isolation, broke down my intellectual defences, and forced me into a thicket of strange new thoughts about the nature of scriptures, God, and reality itself. But the seminar also provided me with a community of charitable fellow travelers who saw my intellectual nakedness, and didn’t judge me for it. Instead, we worked to help clothe each other, so that we could then venture out to find truths that would have been impossible to discover on our own. This magic of collaboration took such a strong hold of me and the rest of the group that we had trouble disentangling our own independent thoughts from the flow of the group’s constant conversations. This spilled over into our group’s final papers, and has changed how each of us understand not only Jacob 7, but the scriptures as a whole, the character of God, and the nature of reality. I hope that you can sense this magic when you read our forthcoming collected papers from the Maxwell Institute. I’m unspeakably grateful for this experience. It helped me to see just how powerful collaborative magic can be, and how necessary that magic is for both discovering meaningful truths, and for truly understanding anything, be it wholly sacred, secular, or some other creature entirely—like theology. Collaboration is a dangerous, powerful magic. I dare you to dabble in it.