Relationships, Interfaith engagement, and Mindfully living as a religious minority | Meridian Magazine
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May 30, 2023

John A. Widtsoe Foundation

More with James Holt


Widtsoe Foundation: Can you talk to us about a value that’s really important to you as a British Latter-Day Saint, and how it gets expressed in your life?


James Holt: There are a number of things that I think are important. For me it’s all about relationships. If I think about what exaltation means to me, it’s about my relationship with the Father. Whenever I talk about my faith, it centers on the relationships that I have, first of all with the Godhead, but then also with my family, with fellow saints, and also with non-members. 


I think that’s a really good opportunity that we have within the UK. I remember speaking to a missionary about that once, and their mindset had to shift an awful lot because they were going from a community where they just assumed everybody that they passed on the street was a Latter-day Saint, and then they come to Manchester, where I live, and they just assume that nobody is. And that’s a big culture shock for them. Whereas obviously for me the opposite is the case. I live next door to my in-laws, so there are members on my street, but I don’t know where the next closest member is to me.


Widtsoe Foundation: Oh yes, that can be a big difference can’t it? So how do relationships with people outside of The Church help you as a disciple of Christ?


James Holt: With that in mind, I understand that part of my preparation for exaltation is all about developing relationships, so those are at the heart of everything that I do. Also, that value of accepting everybody and understanding everybody is important to me too. 


Some members of the church struggle or are surprised that I spend my time teaching and writing about religious education. Religious education over here is very different to the religious education that you would find in the US or at BYU. From the age of three or four to the age of 18, students have an hour’s worth of religious education where they learn about religions of the world and what it is to be Buddhist, Hindu, non-religious, etc. in today’s world.


I spent 13 years teaching and writing about religious education, and then I moved into the university to train those teachers and help them prepare to teach in schools. I’ve also written quite a lot about religions of the world and how to teach religions for the world.  


I can’t just surround myself with members of the church because I work in the world. I’m the only Latter-day Saint who works in the area of religious studies in university in the UK, so it can be a lonely place. But it’s important to me to recognize the value that other people can bring to my discipleship. So I teach about different religions of the world, I’m involved in interfaith organizations, I do all kinds of things surrounding that.


I recognize that each one of those is an opportunity for me to understand others better, but also to understand myself and to develop those relationships. It’s knowing that I have to experience life in all its diversity, and certainly working with people who are of other faiths helps me do that and recognize the value that they can bring.


Last week I was reading something Elder Bednar said in a podcast, and he was talking about how nothing from his graduate work affected his work as an apostle of Jesus Christ. Now I don’t dispute that for his case, but that’s certainly not the case for me because my teaching, my research, everything is an opportunity for me to learn more about myself. And I think that’s something that is an integral part of my discipleship. Because the Savior is front and center of everything that I do, and say, and think about, and He influences every choice that I make, that focus also influences all of those relationships in my life, so when I speak with people who are of different faiths or who live different lives from me, I’m still able to express the love and compassion that the Savior exemplifies. I like living in that kind of diverse environment. 


Widtsoe Foundation: So what I heard you say is that one of the most significant shaping factors for your Latter-day Saint experience is scale- just being the extreme minority in a country


James Holt: Yeah.


Widtsoe Foundation: So would you say that compels you to be more receptive to what other people have to offer, because that’s kind of what’s around you? Like what’s the great advantage that you get in living the gospel as one Latter-day Saint among diverse religious (or non-religious) people?


James Holt: I was speaking to a friend from Utah a number of years ago, and she lived over here in the UK for a while, and we were talking about raising children. She said that in some ways she would prefer her children to grow up in the UK than in Utah- and I don’t know much about Utah, so I’m using what she said is kind of the basis- but she said that Mormonism, the Gospel, is kind of a cultural expression in Utah. So someone can go out drinking on a Friday night and still be at church on a Sunday. Whereas over here it’s not a problem if people don’t go to church. And if you don’t want to go, then you don’t go. 


It’s like being the Church of England over here- when I knocked on doors as a missionary, they’d say “no, no, no, I’m a member of the Church of Scotland.” But it was almost the default position. Whereas over here- it’s different for me because I’m a convert- but for my children, they’ve also had to make that decision and they’ve not been able just to be carried along on the crest of the wave, because they have been the only the only members of the church in their schools and in their friendship groups outside of church. I think having to make that decision earlier makes it more concrete. Also, because of the service that we’re asked to give, there’s really no sitting back in the gospel. I’m going to sound like Thomas S. Monsoon, but I was called as a bishop at 25, and I was in the Stake Presidency at 31, so there’s kind of no opportunity to say, “well, no, you know what, I’m not going to do that, life is too busy.” It’s a conscious choice, rather than being carried along on the crest of a wave. It’s an intentional discipleship every day. If I left church, I’m not sure how many people would try to bring me back outside of a couple in the local community, and people outside of church wouldn’t really have an issue with me leaving church. So it has to be my conscious choice. 


I’m reminded of a quote from Harold B. Lee, who said that a testimony isn’t something you have today and are going to have always- it’s fragile, something you have to recapture every day of your life. So it’s helped me establish that discipleship. 


Now, hopefully that would be the case if I lived in a community of 100,000 members of The Church. But I do look at that, and then I look at my children and all four of them are active at the moment- one’s on a mission, one is temple-married, one is a return missionary as well, and the other one is 15. But each of them, we’ve had to make sure that our gospel living in the home is as consistent as it can be, because otherwise their heads will be turned and they won’t have that same conviction.


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