Zelophehad’s Daughters

Questioning the Spirituality of Others

Posted by Eve

It’s telling how often we Mormons respond to religious questions by impugning the questioner’s spiritual commitment, testimony, or faith instead of, or in addition to, addressing the question itself. Unfortunately, we tend to assume that people who don’t have questions, issues, or doubts are somehow more spiritually committed than those who do. There are at least two reasons I think this assumption is problematic.

First, life has a way of breaking down the dichotomies between believers and questioners, between the faithful and the doubters. As surely as every human being suffers physical and emotional pain, every Mormon, every Christian, every believer faces religious adversity. It’s highly unlikely anyone could long endure as a member of this church without encountering some personal challenge, whether in Mormon history, in the tensions between religion and science, in policy, in doctrine, in the unkindness or dishonesty of other members, in the pain of unfulfilled priesthood blessings, or in the isolation of singleness, homosexuality, infertility, divorce, physical or mental illness, race or class marginality.

Maybe another way to put this is that one of the purposes of life is to learn face our trials, including our religious and our intellectual trials, with courage, integrity, and faith. When we impugn questioners’ motives, we make that vital work we all have to do harder. We drive people into circumspection about their religious adversity, and we contribute to the resulting fissure that then separates adversity from the very personal and community religious strength that questioners and sufferers–which is to say, all of us–most need.

The more fundamental problem with maligning others’ spirituality, though, is the very basic fact that we never know their hearts. We do not know, we cannot know, it is not for us to know, what hours they have spent on their knees, what years-long wrestles they have had with God, what of their lives they have given up to seeking. But we cannot assume that they haven’t. I’m persuaded from my reading of the New Testament that how we treat each other is far more important to God than the positions we come to on even the issues that matter a great deal to me personally, such as feminism. After nearly half a life of church membership (thirty-four years and counting), I’m weary of the lack of charity we grant each other, on both sides of all manner of political and doctrinal divides. I’m tired of the rush to impute evil motives. Everything about our doctrine and scriptures and everything about our own mortal experience teaches us, over and over, that we live in a world of ambiguity, that our knowledge even of the most profound religious truths is partial, that even our most cherished spiritual gifts will one day pass away in the knowledge to come. If there is anything this life seems at pains to teach us, it is how little we know. All of us see through a glass darkly, and perhaps our glasses are never so dark as when we gaze at the spiritual lives of our brothers and sisters. Given this, how can we assume that others who have not had exactly the spiritual experiences we have, or who have not come to the conclusions we have based on their own spiritual experiences, are therefore spiritually deficient?

29 Responses to “Questioning the Spirituality of Others”

  1. 1.

    Great post, Eve. I know you didn’t ask this, but I wonder why we’re so prone to responding this way to each other’s questions. You mentioned that we tend to impugn a questioner’s faith “instead of, or in addition to” trying to answer her questions. My impression is that it’s a lot more often “instead of” than “in addition to.” I think we use personal criticism as a last resort, when we’re not willing to attempt an answer.

    Although I can’t think of an easy way to avoid this, it seems like there is an implicit criticism of non-questioners by questioners that might motivate this kind of response. To take a silly example, if I find fake flowers in chapels to be disturbing because fake flowers are an affront to God’s wonderful creation of real flowers, this might come across as a critique of all the rest of you dolts who just aren’t sensitive enough to notice.

    And of course, as you noted, it runs both ways. It’s easy for non-questioners to just figure that people who question a particular thing that they have no trouble with are just faithless, harping fault-finders.

  2. 2.

    I think part of the problem comes from the way we generalize personal spiritual experiences — e.g. when I pray about XXXX I feel peace. Therefore, those who do not feel peace regarding this are not praying adequately, are rebellious spirits, are “missing something,” are __________, etc.

    One of my most treasured spiritual lessons came from my best friend in college. She was a conservative Jew who, over the course of our college career, “converted” to orthodoxy. Some of her experiences on this journey were almost tangibly spiritual — even for me, watching from the sidelines. But neither one of us ever mistook this “truth for her” as something that should be (or even could be) truth for ME. And yet I think, as Mormons, we often project “truth for me” as “what other people are missing.” It’s hard not to, with the “one true church” still at the forefront of our lexicon.

  3. 3.

    Eve, I’m wondering how you would respond to this idea, because I’m not sure if it works:

    If I don’t have a crisis over X, I may actually have a problem with X but that I have decided that since I have a very strong testimony of the gospel in general, I can live with my problems with X. So Br. Jones shows up having a crisis of faith over X. When I respond to him by questioning his faith, my point isn’t really that he is an apostate for having doubts about X (heck, I have them, too), my point is that if X is causing a crisis of faith for him, he must lack the strong tesimony of the gospel that I have.

    Does this make sense? I’m not convinced by it (or saying that it is justified), but I think it might explain why/how two otherwise well-meaning people could end up talking right past each other.

  4. 4.

    “… my point is that if X is causing a crisis of faith for him, he must lack the strong tesimony of the gospel that I have.”

    This isn’t the problematic part though – He DOESN’T have a strong testimony. He DOESN’T have faith. That’s why it’s a problem for him and not for you. The problematic thing is not pointing out that they don’t have faith, it is calling into questions the reason they are not able to. “I am able to live with my questions about __ and still have doubt, you are not, therefore you must be an evil person or must be committing sin.”

    The very few members I’ve talked about my doubts with, other than my hsuband, inevitably end up questioning me about how I pray, when I pray, what unresolved sin must there be, etc. They can’t understand why I have a problem with it if they don’t. And I can’t understand how they don’t.

  5. 5.

    Oops, that should have been:
    “I am able to live with my questions about __ and still have FAITH, you are not, therefore you must be an evil person or must be committing sin.”

    Sorry, typing too fast.

  6. 6.

    I can only infer from the questioning nature of this post, Eve, that you have some awful unresolved sin hanging on your conscience. I recommend you talk with your Bishop about it ASAP.

    :P

  7. 7.

    Julie, Thanks for a perceptive analysis of what probably often happens in these sorts of conversations–and as you say, results in two people talking past each other.

    Here’s a tentative foray: maybe part of the difference between Sis. Brown, who’s wondered about X, come to no concluesions, but relies on her testimony of the gospel, and Bro. Jones, who finds himself plunged into a crisis of faith over X, is the varying depths at which X hits them, so to speak.

    Personally (and I’m sure others feel different about this, so please chime in!), I find the ninety percent of Xs don’t present me with more than mild headscratchers. Although I have no answers to the questions they pose, I’d put the more outlandish incidents in church history and Genesis/evolution issues into that ninety percent. But part of the reason those issues don’t get to me is that I’m neither a historian nor a scientist. I’m sure they’d get to me more if I were. My husband has long struggled over issues of agency and environmental influence and determinism because he’s a psychologist and a behaviorist. I think the questions he asks are interesting, but they don’t affect my faith because I’m neither.

    (And if there’s anything reading the Bloggernacle has done to me, it’s to make me a complete agnostic on almost every issue outside the basics of God’s existence and love, the atonement of Christ, the restoration, etc. I have a few ideas about a few things, but I’ve been reduced to complete opinionlessness on things like multiple probations and Adam-God and the complexities of priesthood keys :>)

    So maybe there are at least two factors in a crisis of faith over X–the faith itself and the personal significance of X. I don’t want to generalize from myself too much, but I wonder if we all don’t have a 10% of Xs that really shake us–whether those Xs are doctrinal or matters of policy or social.

    That could be at least one reason Sis. Brown and Bro. Jones talk past each other. What looks like the same X is really a completely different issue for each because X is in Sis. Brown’s 90% but in Bro. Jones’ 10%.

  8. 8.

    Thanks, Ziff. You nicely identify the way asking certain loaded questions in a church context is sort of like parting the Red Sea. And then begin the cultural wars, the doctrinal disputes, or the vicious hand-to-hand combat over the fake flowers.

    Deborah, you rightly put your finger on the sore spot in all this I chickenheartedly avoided in my original post: the one true church issue (which really goes back to Lynnette’s earlier post on exclusivism/inclusivism/pluralism. I’m not a theologian, and I’m already out of my depth on this issue, so I’ll just say this: I believe that God is uniquely involved in the LDS Church. I also believe that our default assumption should be that others’ spiritual experiences are real and true. What those two beliefs mean together, I can’t begin to say.

    Sue said,

    “They can’t understand why I have a problem with it if they don’t. And I can’t understand how they don’t.”

    I think that’s exactly the misunderstanding at the heart of these painful conversations that so easily disintegrate into accusations of spiritual sloth or intellectual cowardice.

    Kaimi, I would (visit my bishop ASAP), but he asked me to please limit my interminable confessional visits to Sundays.

    :>

  9. 9.

    Self-defense also plays a role in deciding that someone with questions must have deep dark sins and a bad prayer life. We don’t want to have uncomfortable questions. So when someone confronts us with an uncomfortable question, it’s natural to distance ourselves from the situation. So you accuse the questioner of having some other problem that you don’t have. Because if the doubts are caused by something that you don’t have, then you don’t have to worry about having doubts.

    It’s the same phenomenon that keeps us from thinking that anything bad could really happen to us. Bad things only happen to other people who deserve it or who otherwise did something stupid to bring their problems upon themselves. That won’t happen to us because we’re smarter than they are.

    Accusing questioners of lacking faith that we have is a way of distancing ourselves from a problem we don’t want to have.

  10. 10.

    One answer might be that, very often, the articulation of the doubt seems to suggest that we are preferring some other approach to the gospel or the prophet or the church. Like, my philospohy/ideology/religious background/economic preferences/etc etc etc being how they are, if only the church/prophet/gospel/my ward/my bishop would be so much better if only they were different in some particular way. This, it seems to many, is seeming to put the gospel or the church on par or inferior to things of this world, and so it seems natural for those who are not troubled in that particular way to believe that the speaker must not have a strong commitment to eternal truth as it is because they are shaken by things of a more temporal nature.

  11. 11.

    TMD, I think what’s problematic about this assumption is that the church is part of the world, and we don’t really have any failsafe criteria for sifting “eternal truth” out from “things of a more temporal nature.” The GAs, for example, are not only influenced by their culture, but inevitably rely to some degree on their own encounter with “worldly scholarship” in framing the gospel.

    To take a couple of examples that I hope are not too controversial, a few years ago President Hinckley referred (in General Conference) to the Middle Ages as an era of “ignorance and evil,” in contrast to the Renaissance, a “flowering of learning.” But in the medieval history courses I took (at BYU!) we learned that the Middle Ages was actually a period of technological innovation unmatched by the pace of (so-called) progress in classical antiquity.

    So what do I believe? Am I obligated to accept that President Hinckley’s statement supersedes worldly scholarship and represents the definitive eternal view of the medieval period? Or am I allowed to wonder whether President Hinckley isn’t simply repeating what he himself learned in school, the view prevalent in the early twentieth century?

    On a more recent occasion, President Hinckley declared, “I have just completed reading a newly published book by a renowned scholar. It is apparent from information which he gives that the various books of the Bible were brought together in what appears to have been an unsystematic fashion. In some cases, the writings were not produced until long after the events they describe.”

    How do we understand this statement? President Hinckley acknowledges that his own source on this matter is not God directly, but biblical scholarship. Do we assume that once the prophet has absorbed the essence of this scholarship into a GC talk, it is now elevated to the status of eternal unassailable truth? Or is it still fair for us to critique biblical scholarship, even when our own prophet repeats its claims?

    And if President Hinckley is consulting biblical scholarship to learn more about the Bible (and not just getting all his information directly from God), is it acceptable for me to do likewise (even if that might lead me to question statements other Church leaders have made, perhaps under the influence of other scholarship)?

  12. 12.

    Kiskilili: Two responses:

    First, I’m not advocating this, I’m offering an explanation for why the trend exists. I do think, however, that most people who would be inclined to doubt others’s faith would take issue with the idea that, on key matters of the faith, the church is of this world. Since your examples deal with issues not associated with key ideas in the faith–like for instance, that Joseph Smith was a true prophet and GBH is indeed a prophet, seer, and revelator with the fullest keys of the priesthood and sealing power of anyone on earth–I do not think that they get at the issue. And I would note that I do not think that the church is merely of the earth, either, but that on key matters of doctrine and theology (so far as that exists) it is indeed (and uniquely) lead by a prophet of God.

    Second, faith has no clear falsification procedure, unlike science (and I’m referring to a more complex method, like that outlined by Lakatos). So, it’s hard to say what would be a proper method. So, it seems to me that it’s odd to think in terms of what ‘would’ be a prescriptively correct way of doubting others faith and what would be a prescriptively incorrect way of concluding that anothers’ faith is dooubtful.

    As a last note, I think it’s inappropriate to conflate spirituality and faith. As I see it, spirituality is merely a feeling of a relationship with the devine. Faith (in a theological sense) is belief in particular ideas and perhaps promises about how the divine will act. This being the case, it may be more possible to create a prescriptively correct means for evaluating someones’ faith in particular ideas than in their general spirituality, if one would wish to.

  13. 13.

    I have been thinking about this issue a lot lately as I have made what I consider to be a God directed choice not to attend church anymore. Because I am a unique person with individual experiences as is every child of God, I know that I will never be fully, or even partly understood. I think it was designed this way so that in our utter loneliness we could truly find God, our Heavenly Father and Mother. Knowing this it still tears me apart that much of my family will think of me as lost from God’s truth, “…headed for destruction” as my mom puts it.

    In the end, I know I have to do what is the right thing for me and my family, based on my experience. This is my way to God and if I am looked down on because of that, I guess I will have to swallow that very bitter pill. No matter how often I tell myself it doesn’t matter what others think, I am constanly seeking validation.

  14. 14.

    I think this can cut both ways. I have heard those who question place themselves spiritually above those who don’t, whom they label as “blind followers” or other similar, lesser creatures.

  15. 15.

    I really like this post, and I find a lot of the comments insightful. Here is my take, Mormonism gives the following epistemic equation: God is not the author of confusion, thus the Truth is a unified consistent set of ideas. Revelation is the way to distinguish the True ideas and the False ones. If someone is sincere and righteous they obtain such revelation. Therefore if someone doubts these ideas they have not been sincere and/or obedient.

    With this equation as the basis of testimony, how else can someone respond to doubt and disagreement? When we see what appear to be sincere, intelligent, faithful people who doubt it throws this whole equation into question. If you believe that it is not possible to be sincere, intelligent, moral and wrong, then you will question those who disagree. Otherwise the foundation of one’s entire belief system is questioned. As it is often said, the best defense is a good offense.

  16. 16.

    Samara,

    I just wanted to tell you that I had a very similar experience. My parents did not react positively either, to put it mildly. I can only say that it was an inspired decision. I used to go to church, defensive, depressed and sometimes very angry. Being away freed me to concentrate on concepts such as grace without the constant double speak. I am going back now (most weeks) and I am happier at church than I have been since I can remember. This may not be the path for you. As you say we all have our own paths. In fact I usually dislike stories like this where someone “goes away” only to come back later and vindicate those who have never doubted, left or searched beyond the approved boarders. I just wanted to let you know that you are not alone.

  17. 17.

    Nice comments, TMD. I didn’t bring up a hotter issue because I think the thread will immediately jack to the issue rather than the method, which is what I’m interested in. :) (But for the record, I honestly don’t understand how we separate key doctrinal issues from non-key issues.)

    Your point about spirituality and faith being different is an interesting one, and raises the possibility that people might be equally in tune with the divine and yet have faith in different ideas. Of course, faith implies doubt, otherwise it wouldn’t be mutually exclusive of knowledge. Or, if we limit faith to belief in ideas that are “true” but for which we lack knowledge, then nobody can actually know whether or not they have faith.

    I really like your point, M&M. I think it’s important that we recognize that we each struggle with very different things for different reasons, and accept one another anyway, regardless of our questions or lack of questions. I appreciate reading your comments on various blogs even though I realize we don’t always agree.

  18. 18.

    I think sometimes by marginilizing others doubts we avoid feeling the burden it places on our faith. It’s tough to deal with those things. Of course the scriptures admonish us to bear each others burdens…

  19. 19.

    A wonderful post, Eve. Having been through of crisis of faith and identity over the past year in which some have questioned my integrity and my heart, I found it comforting.

  20. 20.

    I love the post , it made mme think of my situation. I am Elizabeth I live in Holland Europe.
    Last year I wrote a email to my bishop that I could do my calling anymore and that I was not able to come to church on sundays, because havin a depression and a burnout, during the week I use up all the energy that I have to take care of my special needs son.
    I am a single mother with hardly any help.
    I do go during the week with my son to thedifferent therapies he has.
    I really need the weekend to rest up and last year I was most of the time in bed during the weekend.

    Anyway. first of all the bishop or the RS did not react to this email.
    Later people of my ward that would call or I would see in the supermarket would question my faith.
    If you have faith enough you can come to church they would say.
    One time in lds group that I member of a sister made a whole list of all the special needs childeren she had with her husband and how she did go to church and that I have no reason not to go.

    Anyway a little afther that a good sisterfriend of mine called and we always have a spiritual conversation and she suprised me when she said: you haven’t been in the church for so long but I listen to you and see that you have grown alot”

    We cannot look and someones outside and see what is in the heart.
    that is why I think it so importand for us not justify ourselves that we are better then others, we should not worry if somebody is sinfull or not.
    What we should do is spread love, because I feel that in the end when we are before God that is what He will asks us what have you done with the love I shared with you. Did you share it with others

  21. 21.

    Chris/Hurrican and Elizabeth, thanks for the kind words. I hope you–and indeed all of us–can find the peace we seek. And that, as Anonymous reminds us, we can bear each others’ burdens, whatever those burdens may be.

  22. 22.

    Julie said: “So Br. Jones shows up having a crisis of faith over X. When I respond to him by questioning his faith, my point isn’t really that he is an apostate for having doubts about X (heck, I have them, too), my point is that if X is causing a crisis of faith for him, he must lack the strong tesimony of the gospel that I have.”

    Question: Julie, are you referring to me specifically, or to a generic “Bro. X” archetype? :)

    Back to topic. Back in the days when I was fresh from my mega-wonderful conversion experience and assumed that all Mormons had enjoyed similar divine communication, I concluded that ANYONE who had direct contact with deity and still had problems with faith, charity, or what-have-you could only have some kind of side issue poisoning their attitude.

    After many bitter, cynical years, though, I’ve gained empathy for the Lamans/Lemuels, Judases, and Adams/Eves of creation. Unless one is in the constant presence of the divine, even the most intense and intimate spiritual experience can’t “last” you forever. Alma the younger said that he had to pray, fast, and continue to build his faith even after his very corporeal spiritual conversion. And when the Spirit doesn’t give you a nudge, one way or the other, you’re left to make your own choices with the tools that you’ve got left.

    And different people, with different experiences, or tools, or different levels of involvement with the Spirit, can see things in different ways. Hence the judgmental attitudes of some, and the corresponding anger in return.

  23. 23.

    As a resident of southern Utah, I see the interaction you describe constantly, Eve. Mormons are the biggest score keepers I know. I’ve often quoted an old psychology professor when he said, “there is power in conforming to the norms and mores of the society in which we live.” That is never more true than here in Utah.

    One thing that bothers me is that it is possible to appear completely righteous while having no real inner spiritual life. I don’t care what others do, except when I am attacked for my iconoclasm, as I often am.

    Simply insisting on giving the opening prayer in sacrament (because I’m scared to death to pray and I figured at least I could enjoy the meeting instead of worrying the whole time) was a huge deal and many, I believe, judged me as less righteous for it. People got mad and men got offended!

    And these are people who I know never do their home or visiting teaching. They do what is visibly “righteous” ie consistently attend church, yet oh, what is that scripture “having a form of Godliness?”

    The level of hypocrisy is immense and I believe, makes a lot of people question the truthfulness of the gospel, which are two different issues. Nevertheless, there is a point at which I, with my deep and abiding testimony, could be run off by jerks.

    Not that I’ve never been a jerk or anything.

  24. 24.

    Some interesting stuff here.

    Might I point out, though, why a seeming questioning of issues of personal righteousness might be appropriate in some cases, especially in the online community. The problem is that very frequently writers use their own righteousness as an implied premise in their arguments. And you just can’t use your righteousness as a premise and then object to counterarguments on grounds of the other persons compassion. Your personal righteousness is an issue if you make it part of the issue in the first place.

    A fictitious example: In a story of some kind someone explains that they don’t get very much out of their Sunday School lessons and conclude that something is wrong with the Sunday School program and that something needs to be done to change it. What is being assumed by the writer here is either that the success of Sunday School is entirely in the hands of the teacher/curriculum or that the author is doing his or her own part to make Sunday School successful (i.e. reading beforehand, paying attention in class, having the spirit, participating in the discussion, etc.)

    Can one not object to the claim that the Sunday School program needs to be changed by pointing out that there are things the author could be doing herself to make Sunday School successful? I don’t think that such an objection is personal, because we’re talking about universal principles. But 99 times out of 100 the author is going to take it as personal — indeed, a questioning of personal righteousness.

    Now obviously, the above objection can be made in a tactful, analytical way or a personal, malicious way and I think it’s pretty obvious that the latter is wrong no matter how correct the objection. But most bloggernacers are smart enough to figure out that even the most abstract, impersonal objection of this kind implies that the author could be doing something differently — and offense is taken even still.

    This is akin to a someone trying to figure out why he got lung cancer and accusing the doctor of judgmentalism when the doctor asks if he smokes. Admittedly, it’s terribly bad form to walk up to a lung cancer patient and say, “Oh my gosh, you’re a smoker, aren’t you!” But it’s also bad form to ask online blog audiences why God would curse them with lung cancer and then reject with offense any suggestion that they might have played a part in the acquisition of their disease.

  25. 25.

    Eric, thanks for taking the time to compose a thoughtful response.

    I suppose our personal righteousness is always and inseparably part of who we are, what we do, and how we blog (and in my opinion is most evident not in what we say but in how we treat our fellow bloggers, especially in how we disagree with them). But I don’t see how a questioner/suggester/complainer’s personal righteousness is necessarily an impicit premise in her question/suggestion/complaint. In your hypothetical Sunday school example, you suggest that the critic assumes that Sunday school success lies entirely in the hands of the teacher. But how can we ever know that the critic is making that assumption? How can we assume she isn’t doing all she can to make Sunday school succeed?

    Your lung cancer/doctor analogy is suggestive, but as I see it, the doctor-patient relationship has no Bloggernacle counterpart. Such doctors as we have hereabouts–bishops, parents, other ecclesiastical leaders–have only offline authority; in the Bloggernacle we’re a community of ecclesiastical equals. Friendly, humble, personal advice can certainly be appropriate–myself, I much prefer, “I really feel for you, hypothetical lung cancer patient. I smoked for fifteen years, and it was excrutiating to quit. I found it helpful to chew gum constantly and eat grapefruit peels and glue nicotine patches to my forehead. Whatever you try, good luck!” to “These thirty-six scriptures clearly indicate that smoking is wrong.”

    Ultimately, diagnosis and prescription are best left to the professionals entitled to the inspiration to do it right.

  26. 26.

    Eve, I think we’re talking about different things. Your comment on the smoking issue seems to be about tact. On that point, I totally agree. We should be kind and tactful in everything we say. But the issue I’m addressing is whether it is justifiable to question another’s righteousness at all, even if done tactfully.

    Here is the original argument made by the critic:

    1. I’m not getting anything out of Sunday school.
    (Implied) 2. a. Success in Sunday school is up to the teacher.
    Or
    b. I am doing my part to make Sunday school successful.
    Therefore: Sunday school needs to be changed.

    In order to challenge the conclusion, I must refute one of the premises. I cannot refute 1 because it is a subjective claim in itself. I deny 2a and am left with 2b.

    But if questioning the truth of 2b is made unacceptable because of social reasons then there is no way to challenge the conclusion. It is, of course, possible that 2b is true and that the conclusion is thus true also. But if I am required to assume that 2b is true out of “charity”, then there is no way to engage the issue.

    I’m trying to say this objectively, but really it’s absurd. It’s essentially saying, “I think Sunday school needs to be changed and you can’t disagree with me because I’ll be offended.” The critic is saying that any real disagreement with her conclusion is judgmental and unchristlike in itself. Why then post your claim on the internet in the first place? Just to hear a bunch of people reassure you in your beliefs?

  27. 27.

    I see the issue being raised here not so much one of someone saying something like “Sunday School just isn’t doing it for me” and then getting upset when people ask, “Well, is there anything you could do to make Sunday School better?”–but more akin to someone saying “Sunday School just isn’t doing it for me,” and people responding, “What!? Don’t you have a testimony? Don’t you realize that Sunday School is an inspired program? etc.” I can see the usefulness of looking at the former, but I think it’s the possibility of the latter that often scares people out of talking about the problems that they do have. It’s not just that they might get challenged to look at what they personally could do to improve things—-it’s that their entire faith/spirituality/commitment might very well get called into question.

  28. 28.

    I agree Lynnette.

    I would just point out, though, that your first response is still going to offend a number of people. And they will still pull the “you’re questioning my personal righteousness” card on you. In fact, even if you put it in a totally impersonal way, they’re still going to get you for implying that there’s something they could possibly be doing differently.

    I realize that the point I’m making is so extreme in its mildness that it almost seems an unnecessary thing to point out at all. But I think it’s actually very common and, in my mind, a very serious impediment towards genuine dialogue.

  29. 29.

    Eric, I think tact is central to the issue because polite suggestions don’t question righteousness in the way an explicit call to repentance does. Too often we see tone, tact, and politeness a mere rhetorical embellishments for the sensitive; I’d suggest that on the contrary, they’re deeply bound up in what we mean, and that to alter tone is to alter meaning, as I think Lynnette’s examples above illustrate nicely.

    You lay out a suggestive outline of the hypothetical critic’s argument. But it seems that, given that on the Bloggernacle you almost certainly lack the information necessary to refute 2b, by your own analysis, you’re unable to refute the critic’s conclusion. Which is not to say the conclusion is necessarily correct, just that we almost always lack the relevant data to evaluate the truth of the premises. (If you resist going after 1 because it’s subjective, shouldn’t you equally resist going after 2b for the same reason?)

    It’s interesting that you see the accusation of righteousness-questioning as such a frequent impediment to dialogue. Clearly our experiences have been different, but I tend to see the very existence of the Bloggernacle as belying your claim that critics are arguing “any real disagreement with [their] conclusion is judgmental and unChristlike in itself.” (Don’t we more or less live to disagree around here? :> ) What I see far more often is the implicit–or explicit–claim, “Anyone who disagrees with me about X is unrighteous.”

    And none of this, by the way, should be read as an attempt to impugn your personal righteousness, which is, I’m sure, of the highest quality. ;>

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